The Origins of Halloween

Halloween originated in the ancient religion of the Celts. Their two main feasts (called "Fire Festivals") were Beltane at the beginning of summer (April 30 - May 1), and Samhain (pronounced Sha-Von) at the end of summer (October 31 - November 1). Samhain was the festival for the Lord of the Dead. The Celts believed that Samhain was a time when the division between the two worlds became very thin, when hostile supernatural forces were active and ghosts and spirits were free to wander as they wished and to possess the living.

The Celtic priests who carried out the rituals in the open air were called Druids, members of pagan orders in Britain, Ireland and Gaul, who generally performed their rituals by offering sacrifices, usually of animals, but sometimes of humans, in order to placate the gods; ensuring that the sun would return after the winter; and frightening away evil spirits. To the Celts, the bonfire represented the sun and was used to aid the Druid in his fight with dark powers. The term bonfire comes from the words "bone fire," literally meaning the bones of sacrificed animals, sometimes human, were piled in a field with timber and set ablaze. In order to make themselves and their homes less inviting to these wayward spirits, the Celts would douse all their fires. There was also a secondary purpose to this: after extinguishing all their fires, they would relight them from a common source, the Druidic fire that was kept burning at Usinach, in the Middle of Ireland. Householders were levied a fee to relight their fires. During the Festival of Samhain, fires would be lit which would burn all through the winter and sacrifices would be offered to the gods on the fires. This practice of burning humans was stopped around 1600, and an effigy was sometimes burned instead.

Samhain was the supreme night of demonic jubilation. Spirits of the dead would rise out of their graves and wander the countryside, trying to return to the homes where they formerly lived. Frightened villagers tried to appease these wandering spirits by offering them gifts of fruit and nuts. This is the origin of our present day "trick-or-treat." They began the tradition of placing plates of the finest food and bits of treats that the household had to offer on their doorsteps, as gifts, to appease the hunger of the ghostly wanderers. If not placated, villagers feared that the spirits would kill their flocks or destroy their property.

The problem was, if the souls of dead loved ones could return that night, so could anything else, human or not, nice or not-so-nice. The only thing the superstitious people knew to do to protect themselves on such an occasion was to masquerade as one of the demonic hoard, and hopefully blend in unnoticed among them. Wearing masks and other disguises and blackening the face with soot were originally ways of hiding oneself from the spirits of the dead who might be roaming around. This is the origin of Halloween masquerading as devils, imps, ogres, and other demonic creatures.

When Roman Catholicism spread to parts of Europe, instead of trying to abolish these pagan customs, the Roman Catholics tried to blend the "Christian" and the pagan together (as they have done with a multitude of pagan holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day) so as to make it less offensive for pagans to become Roman Catholics. The Romans observed the holiday of Feralia, intended to give rest and peace to the departed. Participants made sacrifices in honor of the dead, offered up prayers for them, and made oblations to them. The festival was celebrated on February 21, the end of the Roman year. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV introduced All Hallow's Day to replace the pagan festival of the dead. It was observed on May 13. In 834, Gregory III moved All Hallow's Day from May 13 to November 1, since November 1 was the pagan festival to the Lord of the Dead. The Roman Catholics appeased the pagans by having a joint holiday for the dead on November 1, and the day before (All Hallow's Evening, or Hallow E'en) was retained as the day that the spirits began to wander in the realm of the living.

Numerous folk customs connected with the pagan observances for the dead have survived to the present. The various activities traditional to Halloween are mostly associated with the idea of obtaining good fortune and foretelling the future. The idea behind ducking, dooking or bobbing for apples seems to have been that snatching a bite from the apple enables the person to grasp good fortune. Samhain is a time for getting rid of weakness, as pagans once slaughtered weak animals which were unlikely to survive the winter. A common ritual calls for writing down weaknesses on a piece of paper or parchment, and tossing it into the fire. There used to be a custom of placing a stone in the hot ashes of the bonfire. If in the morning a person found that the stone had been removed or had cracked, it was a sign of bad fortune. Nuts have been used for divination: whether they burned quietly or exploded indicated good or bad luck. Peeling an apple and throwing the peel over one's shoulder was supposed to reveal the initial of one's future spouse. One way of looking for omens of death was for peope to visit churchyards, because the spirits of those who were going to die during the coming year were thought to walk around the churchyard during this night.

Trick or Treat comes from a European custom called "souling". Beggars would go from village to village begging for "soul cakes" made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. It was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could guarantee a soul's passage to heaven. The "trick" part came later, as Halloween was seen as a time to be mischievous with no consequences.

The witch is a central symbol of Halloween. The name comes from the Saxon wica, meaning wise one. When setting out for a Sabbath, witches rubbed a sacred ointment onto their skin. This gave them a feeling of flying, and if they had been fasting they felt even giddier. Some witches rode on horseback, but poor witches went on foot and carried a broom or a pole to aid in vaulting over streams. Bats, owls and other nocturanal animals, also popular symbols of Halloween, were originally feared because people believed that these creatures could communicate with the spirits of the dead. Black cats have religious origins as well. During the Middle Ages it was believed that witches could turn themselves into black cats. Thus,when such a cat was seen, it was considered to be a witch in disguise.

The ancient symbol of a damned soul is a turnip or beet carved out as a lantern. The origin of the term "Jack-O-Lantern" is the Irish myth of a man named Stingy Jack, who one day invited the Devil to have a drink. He convinced the Devil to change into a sixpence in order to pay for the drink, but instead of paying for the drink he pocketed the sixpence beside a silver cross which prevented the Devil from changing back. Jack made a deal with the Devil before letting him free. For one year the Devil could not harrass Jack. Next Halloween the Devil met up with Jack again, and Jack made another deal with him to be left alone. Jack died within the year and was turned back from the Gates of Heaven. He went to the Gates of Hell and the Devil told him to go away, as Jack had made him promise not to claim his soul. Jack didn't want to leave because it was dark and he couldn't find his way. The Devil tossed Jack a glowing coal and Jack put it inside a turnip, and ever since with this Jack-O'-Lantern, Jack has been roaming the faces of this earth. The pumpkin became the Jack-O-Lantern of choice because of their abundance, size, and ease of making into a lantern. Pumpkins were cut with faces representing demons and were intended to frighten away evil spirits. It was said that if a demon or such were to encounter something as fiendish looking as themselves that they'd run away in terror, thus sparing the houses dwellers from the ravages of dark entities. They were carried around the village boundaries or left outside the home to burn through the night.

"Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them" (Jeremiah 10:2).


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