A History of Hallowe’en

by M-Gillies

The custom of carving pumpkins originated with the Irish who carved turnips into faces to scare lost souls away.

Toeing the line between fall and winter, plenty and scarcity, life and death, Hallowe’en is that secular holiday that has long combined the vestiges of traditional harvest festival celebrations with the customs of folkloric tales of the supernatural. Drawing upon the heavy influences of the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain and the Christian remembrance of martyrs and saints with All Saints Day, Hallowe’en has evolved throughout the centuries to become a day the veil between the living and the dead is lifted, and the dead are honored.

With demons, ghosts, skeletons, zombies, vampires and werewolves roaming the blackened streets, terrorizing neighbors for offerings of credence, the carving of turnip-lanterns as grotesque severed heads, and the game of ducking for apples, the world’s oldest holiday finds its roots dating as far back as 2,000 years ago.

First celebrated by the Celts of Ireland and Scotland during the month of Yule, Hallowe’en was known during this period as Samhain, a celebration of the festival of the dead. In accordance to their new year which fell on November 1st, based on the Neopagan “Wheel of the Year”, Samhain marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of winter, a time of darkness, death and chaos.

It was during what the Celts called “The Time of the Wolf” that herdsmen drove their beasts back to the safety of the byre, the elderly made their last wishes known and the people prepared for the ensuing famine and the rationing of food. Since the Celtic people believed that the night before the new year (October 31) blurred the lines between the land of the living and the land of the dead, they celebrated the returning spirits by presenting offerings in hopes that the winter would not damage their crops.

To commemorate the dead on their return to the land of the living, Druids built sacred bonfires which people would gather around to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. House fires would be extinguished to make homes uninviting for spirits who sought shelter, and costumes consisting of animal heads and skins were worn to hide the identities of the Celts as spirits roamed the earth. It was also a time when, because of the volatile natural world they lived in that Druid and Celtic priests read fortunes and predicted prophecies of the winter that loomed ahead.

However, as time passed and the Roman Empire began conquering the majority of the Celtic territory by 43AD, many Ancient Roman practices found themselves being instituted among the culture of the Celts. Particularly, two festivals of Roman origin, Feralia, an ancient Roman nine day public festival honoring the dead ancestors between February 13-21 and a day to honor the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees known as Pomona found prominence within Samhain. Because Pomona was known as the goddess of fertility, and the Celts saw the pentagram as being a symbol of fertility, the apple soon found its place as a significant symbol.

It was discovered upon slicing the apple in half, the seeds formed a pentagram, which prompted the Celts to use apples as a means of determining marriage. During their annual celebrations, young unmarried people would bite into an apple, sometimes floating in water or hanging from a string, and based on who bit into the apple first, would be the next to marry, thus the earliest genesis of bobbing for apples was born.

While, the Romans were known as conquerers, they were accepting of other cultures and for the next 600 years, the two cultures coincided in unity. As the Celts practiced their annual customs, the Romans performed theirs, which saw the celebration of Lemuria. This celebration was performed by the Romans to exorcise the malevolent and fearful ghosts of the dead from their homes during May 9, 11, and 13. However, During May 13 in 609AD, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs and Christianized the feast of Lemuria to the Feast of All Martyrs’ Day. This was the first time in Rome that a Pagan festival was transformed into a place of Christian worship, in what some cultural historians believe was a means of de-Paganizing the Roman festival.

After the dedication of the Pantheon in Rome, Pope Gregory III, feeling that the day should include all saints as well as martyrs, later expanded the remembrance sometime between 731-741. It was during this time that Pope Gregory III also changed the date from May 13th to November 1st.

By the 9th century, Christian influence had spread into Celtic territory where it began to gradually amalgamate older Celtic rites.

Meanwhile, the Church, having designated November 2 as the official day to honor the dead with All Souls’ Day, the celebrated festivities were seen analogous to those of Samhain. With bonfires, parades and dressing up as saints, angels and devils, it had been widely speculated that the Church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday.

In spite of the amalgamation, the eve of All Saints Day became known as All-Hallows-Even during the sixteenth century as a Scottish variant, eventually becoming All-Hallows Eve before being known as Hallowe’en and once again changed to Halloween.

Despite the Celtic practices of Samhain being shrouded in mysteries lost throughout the centuries, many of Hallowe’en’s traditions can be traced back to the rituals performed by the Neopagan society. However, it was the Irish who first brought the legend of drunken farmer whose dealings with the devil forced him to wander purgatory in darkness. Making a lantern from a turnip with a lump of burning coal to guide his lost soul. Using the turnip lanterns, the Irish began carving faces used to scare wayward spirits away.

When Irish families fled to North America during the 1846 potato famine, they brought with them the custom of carving turnip lanterns. While turnips were hard to come by, pumpkins proved to be a well suited substitute.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that Hallowe’en became popular. With the secular holiday taking several turns over the last century, with Hallowe’en primarily being celebrated by adults and older children, it wasn’t until the 1930s to the 1970s that the evening became dominated by children taking to the streets dressed in the outfits of ghouls and monsters, requesting treats from neighbours.

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