Halloween’s current incarnation as an American holiday is focused mainly on secular pursuits. As I wrote about in my latest blog post, Halloween is a time to come together and indulge a part of ourselves we don’t acknowledge during the rest of the year. We dress up, we throw spooky parties, we trick-or-treat. We also spend a ton of money on Halloween, shelling out nearly $7.4 billion dollars for Halloween in 2015. $2 billion dollars of that was spent on candy alone. It proves to be a nice shot in the arm for the stock market, buoying the economy until the holiday shopping season rolls around.
Halloween has come a long way from its beginnings as a harvest festival, from the ancient Celts to the Romans to Medieval Catholics to Irish immigrants traveling to America. Halloween, like all holidays, speaks volumes about the society that celebrates it. As the people observing Halloween evolve, so does the holiday. The magic of holidays like Halloween lies in the threads of truth that speak to all peoples. There are certain rituals that have persisted and will persist in for as long as we celebrate Halloween, cutting across gender, race, religion, socio-economic position, geography, ethnicity, and nationality.
In the first installment of this two-part post, I’ll briefly recount the long, colorful history of Halloween, from its Celtic origins to its transformation into a Catholic holy day. While you may know some of these historical facts, I hope you learn something new about everyone’s favorite American holiday.
The Festival of Samhain
Halloween began as Samhain (pronounced SAH-win), a Gaelic celebration to honor the dead, protect the harvest, and bridge the divide between fall and winter. Not many records survive of the early incarnations of the festival, but some sources suggest it was celebrated in the British Isles as early as the 5th century BC. Contrary to what some people would have you believe, Samhain was not a devil-worshipping celebration, nor was it performed for a Celtic god of the dead. The Celts didn’t acknowledge an entity similar the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Satan. But Samhain did have religious implications for the Celts, and for many practicing Pagans it is still an important religious date apart from its connection to Halloween.
It was always celebrated on October 31st, which the Celts considered one of the four most important days in the year. They believed the barriers between the world of the living and the dead become thin and vulnerable on October 31st, so vulnerable that ghosts and other troubled spirits could pass into the world of the living.
For the Celts, the arrival of these ghosts was a double-edged sword. Particularly troublesome spirits inflicted heavy damage on crops, thereby endangering the community’s chances of surviving the winter. But the spirits also brought magic into the world, which made it easier for the Celts to perform their own rituals and predict the future.
To balance these reckless forces, the Celts carefully prepared for Samhain. First and most importantly, the Celts harvested their crops and slaughtered their animals, carefully storing the bounty for the harsh winter months. A side effect of the portal between worlds meant that dead kinsmen would wander into the realm of the living on Halloween. Consequently, the Celts honored their deceased loved ones by laying out food and tokens. With the dead properly respected, the Celts sought to appease the spirits and prevent the destruction of their harvest by building huge bonfires. These bonfires were used both to scare away bad spirits and offer sacrifices of some crops and livestock. They also dressed in animal skins, told stories, and engaged in games as demonstrations of strength and virility, which they believed kept the really nasty spirits away.
The Druid priests believed that Samhain made their sacred ceremonies more powerful, so they took full advantage of the otherworldly magic trickling into the human realm. They conducted important rites and attempted to divine the future. Non-priests also engaged in similar behavior, executing far simpler ritual to predict the future and tell fortunes.
For me, the most interesting and evocative part of Samhain was the use of fire. Fire has always been a powerful symbol for humanity, conjuring up associations with the sun, life, energy, masculinity, and human intelligence. Fire was the most effective weapon mankind had against nature for a long time. In a celebration dedicated to preserving life in the face of winter, the central role of fire makes sense.
Before the Samhain celebration began, every family extinguished its hearth, purging the harmful influences of old year. Once at the festival, the bonfires used in sacrifices were also meant to mimic the glorious heat and light of the summer sun. The Celt hoped to carry the sun’s warmth and strength with them through winter. Consequently, every family lit a torch from the communal bonfire and carried the flames back home to reignite their hearths. They believed the new fire was blessed by the celebration, and would protect them like the sun.
The psychology behind this celebration is so striking. Much of it is unique to Celtic life, while a lot reaches modern people on a gut level. Obviously, winter terrified people before the modern miracles of electricity and grocery stores, but I should stress just how dire things could get. People had to avoid running out of food and starving to death. They had to avoid freezing to death if they didn’t have a sufficiently warm and protective shelter. A fire had to be burning at all times, and if the fire went out, it might never be rekindled. Worse still, someone else who had failed to prepare for winter might become desperate enough to steal food, no matter the cost.
It is not hard to see how this pre-Judeo-Christian society associated the troubles of winter with bad spirits. October 31st often fell before the season’s first frost, making it an excellent time to take preemptive measures against danger. And it’s not a stretch to see how a human being, keenly aware of his inability to stop a destructive force, might do everything in his power to both appease the force and scare it away.
Even with a bleak winter looming over them, the Celts found an element of hope in their preparations. Humans have done this since time immemorial. Because the Celts were sure they had figured out how Samhain worked and what exactly was needed to survive the spirits, they sought to use Samhain to their advantage. For people struggling to gain dominion over a brutal natural world, it was a strong comfort that the most learned among them could predict the future and prophesied for the good of the community. It gave them a sense of control.
The same hope exists in the central focus of fire in the Samhain festival. There is something profoundly poignant, poetic even, about a whole community of people sharing the flame from one fire. It is a symbol of their bonds—they sowed their crops together, raised their livestock together, harvested and slaughtered together, and performed rituals of gratitude and protection together. With a sacred fire, they reinforced their communal bonds and ensured that everyone would survive winter.
Ancient Rome’s Impact
From 58 BC to 50 BC, Julius Caesar led armies in the Gallic Wars, a years-long campaign to finally conquer the Gauls and Celts in present-day France and the British Isles. Despite the long history of animosity and vicious fighting between the Romans and the Celts, the Romans brought the region into the Roman Empire and set about assimilating the conquered cultures into Rome’s culture.
One of the Romans’ favorite tactics to aid in assimilating conquered peoples was religious syncretism. This technique succeeds by incorporating two or more religious belief systems into one new system, or when one religion imports aspects of another faith into its own practices. The Romans loved this tactic and had employed it countless times before: Dionysus was originally a Greek God, Cybele was imported from the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Egyptian goddess Isis found a second home in the Roman Empire under Caligula’s rule. Even though the Romans earnestly believed they were superior to everyone else, they were very religiously inclusive. They seized upon similarities between their gods and the gods of other cultures, viewing these foreign deities to be versions of the Roman gods. Ever practical, the Romans were fascinated by new ways of worshipping their gods and figured that incorporating local practices couldn’t hurt.
Thus, it wasn’t a big surprise that, when the Romans encountered the Celts, they found a great many similarities between Samhain and their own religious traditions. Samhain festivities coincided with the Roman celebration of Feralia, traditionally observed at the end of October. Feralia was a festival to honor the dead. The Romans also observed Feralia to pay tribute to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, who symbolized abundance. The Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples can be traced directly to Pomona’s influence.
Much like in the Celtic tradition of Samhain, the Romans believed the spirits wandered free during the festival of Feralia, searching for food to feast on and small tokens to carry away. To honor the dead, the Romans brought offerings of decorative wreathes, violet blossoms, grain, salt, and bread soaked in wine to the graves of their ancestors. Like the Celts, the Romans believed there were terrible consequences for neglecting these spirits. The great historian Ovid once wrote of a year when the Romans were busy waging war and forgot to properly observe Feralia. To avenge the dishonor, the dead rose from their graves and flooded the streets, wailing for their promised offerings. It was so horrible that the Romans never made that mistake again and dutifully observed Feralia thereafter.
In this way, the fierce and efficient romans maintain a balance between their serious warrior culture and the inescapable truth of mortality. At the appropriate times, they turned away from war and focused on their religious festivals, which encourage them to reflect upon those who had died and those who would eventually die. Life was both bountiful and deadly, and a good Roman was expected to hold this truth in his or her heart.
During the Roman rule of Gaul, the festival of Samhain became a joint Celtic and Roman observance. One could say it was all a cynical ploy to make assimilation of conquered peoples run more smoothly, and in many ways it probably was. But I think it is important to acknowledge that Samhain, at its core, struck upon an elemental framework that the Romans understood. The Celts and the Romans shared a common language of symbols and iconography that connected their two cultures on a basic level. Rome’s adoption of key elements of Samhain preserved the festival for hundreds of years to come.
The Influence of the Catholic Church
Once Catholicism became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church grappled with Pagan celebrations. Attempts to stamp out such festivals were unsuccessful, often requiring a great deal of effort to eradicate a centuries’ old tradition. So, the Church took a page out of the Romans’ playbook and used religious syncretism to tackle the problem of Halloween.
It all started in the 7th century, when the Catholic Church moved the Feast of All Martyrs from May 13 to November 1. This Catholic feast day honored all the saints and martyrs who had performed God’s miracles and received salvation from God. The martyrs honored on this day usually did not have their own feast day, so the Feast of All Martyrs functioned as a kind of catch-all holy day. As the influence of the Church spread across Europe, the proximity of the Feast of All Martyrs to Samhain did not go unnoticed. The Catholic holiday honoring saints and martyrs who had sacrificed themselves for the greater good struck a chord with many Pagans. As a result, the two holidays melded together into a new hybrid holiday, acknowledging death and sacrifice in a manner that spoke to both religious groups.
The Catholic church, sensing the need to control the situation, created a church-sanctioned version that came to be known as Allhallowtide. This was a three-day celebration, composed of All Saints’ Eve or All Hallows’ Eve on October 31st, All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day on November 1st, and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. On October 31st, the Church encouraged festivities similar to Samhain, only scrubbed of all reference to the original Celtic beliefs. All Hallows’ Eve included big bonfires and parades. Participants dressed up to ward away demons and ghosts, since they too believed that the boundaries between the earthly and spirit worlds weakened on All Hallows’ Eve. Instead of dressing as animals, however, they dressed up as various Christian icons.
Allhallowtide was also a time to reflect upon the importance of preserving the Catholic faith. Christians would honor not only the saints and martyrs, but all those faithful Christian dead who had preceded them into the afterlife. The holiday encouraged Christians to reflect upon the piety of their departed religious brethren, examining how they were exemplary Christians. These holy days admonished Christians to rededicate themselves to their faith and strive to be better Christians. It also reminded them of the sacrifice Jesus Christ had made for them, and how he had triumphed over death to bring everlasting life to his followers.
Again, I don’t think it’s a stretch that a celebration originally intended to unite a community against an annual winter threat could be molded into a Christian Holy Day intended to unite a community against the threat of eternal damnation. I am in no way trying to denigrate either Pagan or Christian beliefs; I am merely pointing out that the rituals of Samhain, Feralia, and All Hollow’s Eve fulfill the same needs for different groups of people.
Within the Pre-America Halloween tradition, several kernels of truth speak to the human condition, regardless of religious belief. Groups that used to fight and persecute each other eventually found common ground thanks to festivals like Halloween. It goes to show how powerful ritual can be and how human beings have more in common than they might assume.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of The History of Halloween! In that post I will look at how Halloween took root in America and grew into the holiday we know and love today.