In my opinion, one of the coolest aspects of history is to see how ancient customs and traditions from hundreds or even thousands of years ago still manage to weave themselves into our 21st century world. Such is the case with many of our current holidays. Whether it be Saturnalia (Christmas), Imbolc (Groundhog Day) or St. Patrick's Day, it is astonishing to see just how many of these ancient pagan traditions are still with us today, even if their meanings have been lost to time.
Such is the case with Halloween. This holiday, which has become a favorite for children in many parts of the world, has its roots in an era from long ago.
In the highlands of modern day Ireland and many other parts of the British Isles, the Celtic festival of Samhain was celebrated by scores of small towns and villages throughout the land. Samhain (one of the most important Celtic holidays), which was essentially an end of the harvest festival, marked the beginning of winter's reign (called the "dark half" of the year). During this day (the night of October 31 extending into the morning of November 1), Celts believed that the barrier between the living world and the "otherworld" was so thin that the souls of the deceased were able to easily pass between the two.
And while it may seem strange to us in the modern world to hear of mystical barriers between one world and the next being thinned on a singular fall evening, we need to keep in mind that the ancient world of Celts was deeply dependent on the elements. As agricultural societies of the ancient world, Celtic people understood all too well what the winter months meant. Is it any wonder that these people, who saw dying trees, plants, animals and even people with the advent of winter, would see October 31 as a day when the barrier between the living and the dead faded?
During the celebration of Samhain, Celts would invoke the help of their local priests (druids) to pray to the gods for safety from death. These prayers reached a crescendo on Samhain, when the souls of the dead (particularly those who had died in the previous year) could come to the aid of their loved ones.
But not all the souls who crossed into the land of the living were kind. As a result, Celts went to extremes to protect themselves from these unwanted visitors. Bonfires on the outskirts of town were dedicated to the gods as a way to beg for the return of the sun and as a way to keep the evil spirits away. Average people would also dress up in various costumes to ward off the unwanted spirits from their village. In addition, blood sacrifices of animals were regularly made by druid priests, who believed that on Samhain they could better predict the future of the coming year than on any other day.
Samhain wasn't the only festival in the ancient world. In Rome, the celebration of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and gardens, was held on November 1. On this day, divination games (essentially fortune telling games) were a regular part of the Pomona celebration. One of the many games, particularly for men and women who had reached the age of maturity, was to bob for apples, peel the skin, toss the skin over one's shoulder and then analyze it to see which letter of the alphabet it resembled. It was believed that the letter was the first letter of the man/woman that the participant would marry. As the Roman empire continued to expand into northern Europe the ideas of Pomona (the celebration of the harvest) and Samhain (the celebration of the dead) began to fuse with each other. Soon the Roman and Celtic festivals became a united and mainstream celebration that spanned over an entire continent.
But Pomona/Samhain would not overcome every obstacle. With the emergence of Christianity as the preeminent force of the Medieval World, the celebration of Pomona/Samhain would change forever. With its hostility towards all things pagan, the Catholic Church quickly sought for the removal of festivals like Samhain (and Saturnalia). However, church authorities quickly realized that these beliefs and traditions couldn't simply be squashed out. As a result, the church adopted a different tactic. Under the direction of Pope Gregory I, church authorities no longer sought to remove pagan ideas but to Christianize them. Pagan idols were given Christian identities while the pagan devotion to the souls of the dead was converted into a devotion to saints.
Under Pope Leo VI this tactic of pagan "hijacking" was taken even further by the creation of All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day on November 1st. On this day, all of the chosen saints of God were praised by the church, while devout disciples and priests prayed for their assistance to intercede on their behalf with god (does this ring a bell with the ancient Samhain rituals?). As a result, the day before All Hallows Day (October 31st) was known to Christians as "All Hallows Eve", which was eventually shortened to "Hallows Eve'n" and then "Halloween."
But the demonetization of pagan beliefs didn't stop there. In 1486 Pope Innocent VIII made witchcraft (by papal decree) the work of the devil. In consequence, traditional pagan roles for female druids were castigated as being the work of Satan. Needless to say, this spawned a title wave of fear and animosity towards anyone who had the slightest appearance of being a witch. Ridiculous new laws and tests were created to help "identify" witches. Black cats were seen as being the animal embodiment of a witch's soul and were considered bad luck if they crossed one's path. Heck, even the famous Joan of Arc was killed on the grounds that she was a witch!
Halloween wouldn't alway remain in the hands of the Catholics. On October 31, 1517 Marin Luther published his "95 Theses" against the Catholic Church. One of his main grievances, which became a staple of Protestantism, was a rejection of all things linked to popes, priests and saints. As a result, Halloween became a horrific celebration for devout followers of Luther and Protestantism in general. For example, Puritan settlers in America forbade its celebration (along with Christmas) from taking place in the New World. Perhaps this helps to also explain their paralyzing fear of witches, which eventually overcame them and brought about the Salem Witch Trials.
Which brings us to today, where Halloween is seen as a secular holiday for kids. And though this current interpretation is a lot more serene than those of old (no witches have been burned in quite some time) it is still important to remember the origins. After all, they show us just how much we still maintain the legends and symbols of old.