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The Story of Halloween

The Story of Halloween

By: Lisa Caza

Halloween is indeed one of the oldest holidays known to us, with its origins going back thousands of years to approximately 5 B.C. Halloween has had many influences from many cultures over the centuries, from the Celtic festival of Samhain, to the Roman’s Pomona Day, as well as the Christian holidays of All Saints or All Souls Day.

Hundreds of years ago, in what is now known as Great Britain and Northern France, there lived the ancient Celtic civilization. The Celtics worshipped nature and had many gods, with the sun god as their favorite. It was “He” who commanded their work and their rest times, as well as who made the earth beautiful and allowed their crops to grow.The Celtics celebrated their New Year on November 1st. It was celebrated every year with a festival, and it marked the end of the “season of the sun” and the beginning of “the season of darkness and cold.” This concept is also interpreted and practiced in modern day Wicca as the “Light Half” and “Dark Half” of the year. On the eve before the Celtic New Year (October 31), it was believed by many folk that all of the dead were called together . During this calling of the dead, the dead themselves would take on many different forms, with the most “evil” or “bad” of spirits taking the form of animals. To the Celts, the most “evil” spirits would take the form of cats. On October 31st, after the crops were all harvested and stored for the long winter, the cooking fires in every home would be extinguished. The Druids (which were the Celtic priests), would meet on the highest of hilltops in the darkest oak forests (oak trees were considered as extremely sacred – and still is to this day in modernized Celtic/Wiccan Traditions). It would be here where the Druids would then light new fires and offer sacrifices of crops and animals to their God. And while they danced around the newly lit fires, the season of the sun would pass and the season of darkness would begin.

The following morning the Druids would give an ember from their fires to each family, who would then take them home to start new cooking fires. These fires would keep the homes warm and free from all “evil” spirits.

The November 1st 3-day festival was named after Samhain (the God ruling over the “Dark Half” of the year), and honored both the sun god as well as Samhain. During this time, many people would parade in costumes made from the skins and heads of their animals. And it was this festival that essentially became the first Halloween.However, during the first century the Romans invaded Britain. And with them they brought many of their own festivals and customs. One of these was the festival known as Pomona Day – which was named after their Goddess of fruits and gardens. Coincidentally (or not so) it too was celebrated around the first day of November. But after hundreds of years of Roman rule, the customs of the Celtic’s Samhain festival and the Roman’s Pomona Day mixed together to essentially form one major holiday.The next influence came about with the spread of the new Christian religion throughout Europe and Britain. In approximately 835 AD the Roman Catholic Church made November 1st a church holiday to honor all the saints. This day was called All Saint’s Day (or Hallowmas or All Hallows). Then many years later the Church turned November 2nd into a holy day as well – calling it “All Soul’s Day.” And much like the ancient Celts it too was to honor the dead and was celebrated with big bonfires and parades. However the people’s “costumes” differed from the Celts, where they would dress up as saints, angels, and devils.But the spread of Christianity definitely didn’t make people forget about their earlier customs. On the eve of All Hallows (October 31), people continued to celebrate the festival of Samhain and Pomona Day. However, over the years the customs from all of these holidays mixed. October 31st then became known as All Hallow Even, to eventually All Hallow’s Eve, then Hallowe’en, and finally – Halloween.

The Halloween we celebrate today includes all of these influences: Pomona Day’s apples, nuts, and harvest, the Festival of Samhain’s black cats, magic, spirits and death, and the evil spirits, ghosts, skeletons, and skulls from All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.

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More History of Halloween Explained (excerpts from Rowan Moonstone)

1. What does the end of summer have to do with a festival of the dead?

The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land of eternal youth and happiness called Tir Nan Og. They did not have the concept of heaven and hell that the Christian church later brought into the land. The dead were sometimes believed to be dwelling with the Fairy Folk, who lived in the numerous mounds, or sidhe (pron. “shee”), that dotted the Irish and Scottish countryside. Samhain was the new year to the Celts. In the Celtic belief system, turning points, such as the time between one day and the next, the meeting of sea and shore, or the turning of one year into the next were seen as magickal times. The turning of the year was the most potent of these times. This was the time when the “veil between the worlds” was at its thinnest, and the living could communicate with their beloved dead in Tir Nan Og.

2. What about the aspects of “evil” that we associate with the night today?

The Celts did not have demons and devils in their belief system. The fairies, however, were often considered hostile and dangerous to humans because they were seen as being resentful of men taking over their lands. On this night, they would sometimes trick humans into becoming lost in the fairy mounds, where they would be trapped forever. After the coming of the Christians to the Celtic lands, certain folk saw the fairies as those angels who had sided neither with God or with Lucifer in their dispute, and thus, were condemned to walk the earth until judgment day. In addition to the fairies, many humans were abroad on this night, causing mischief. Since this night belonged neither to one year or the other, Celtic folk believed that chaos reigned and the people would engage in “horseplay and practical jokes”. This served also as a final outlet for high spirits before the gloom of winter set in.

3. What about “trick or treat”?

During the course of this holiday, many of the people would imitate the fairies and go from house to house begging for treats. Failure to supply the treats would usually result in practical jokes being visited on the owner of the house. Since the fairies were abroad on this night, an offering of food or milk was frequently left for them on the steps of the house, so the homeowner could gain the blessings of the “good folk” for the coming year. Many of the households would also leave out a “dumb supper” for the spirits of the departed.

4. What other practices were associated with this season?

Folk tradition tells us of many divination practices associated with Samhain. Among the most common were divinations dealing with marriage, weather, and the coming fortunes for the year. These were performed via such methods as ducking for apples, and apple peeling. Ducking for apples was a marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year. Apple peeling was a divination to see how long your life would be. The longer the unbroken apple peel, the longer your life was destined to be. In Scotland, people would place stones in the ashes of the hearth before retiring for the night. Anyone whose stone had been disturbed during the night was said to be destined to die during the coming year.

But Where Did the Jack-o-Lantern Come From?

The idea of Jack-o-lantern comes from an 18th century Irish folk tale about a man named Stingy Jack who is said to have trapped the Devil in the branches of an apple tree.

After Jack’s death, he was too mean to have been allowed into Heaven, but the Devil wouldn’t accept him either for all the numerous tricks he had played on him. So Jack was left to wander the earth endlessly, lighting his path with a lit piece of coal inside a hollowed out turnip. It was from this legend that came the Irish tradition of placing jack-o-lanterns made of turnips and other vegetables in windows or by doors on Halloween. The jack-o-lanterns are meant to scare away Stingy Jack and all the other spirits that are said to walk the earth on that night. It wasn’t until the tradition was brought to the United States and Canada by Irish immigrants in the late 1800’s that pumpkins (which were much more abundant) were used for jack-o-lanterns.

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How Do Other Countries Celebrate “Samhain”?

In Mexico, Halloween is known as ‘Los Dias de los Muertos’ (the day of the dead). However, it isn’t a time of sadness but one of great rejoicing. At this time of year the Monarch Butterflies, which spend their summers in the United States and Canada, return to Mexico. These butterflies are believed to bear the spirits of the dearly departed and are warmly and eagerly welcomed home. In family homes, people set up ‘altars’ with flowers, bread, fruit, and candy. Pictures of the deceased family members are also added. In the late afternoon special long-burning candles are lit – and it is time to remember the departed. In the Aztec calendar, this ritual fell roughly at the end of the Gregorian month of July and the beginning of August, but in the post-conquest era it was moved by Spanish priests so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve.

In Palermo and the rest of Sicily November 2 is a festival day for the children of Palermo as, according to tradition, they believe that their dead relatives would return the night before and leave them traditional sweets and cakes on the table (Martorana fruit, which is almond paste made into the shape of different fruit). They would also receive puppets of boiled sugar and toys. It’s one way of keeping the memory of their dead relatives and loved ones alive.

In Japan, the ‘Obon Festival’, (also called Matsuri or Urabon) is dedicated to the spirits of ancestors, for whom special foods are prepared. Bright red lanterns are hung everywhere. Lit candles are placed into lanterns and floated on rivers and seas. During the ‘Obon’ period a fire is made every night in order to show the ancestors where their families are. One of the two main occasions during the year when the dead are believed to return to their birthplaces. Memorial stones are cleaned and community dances performed. This festival, however, occurs during July or August.

In China, worshippers in Buddhist temples make ‘boats of the law’ ( fa-ch’uan) out of paper, some very large, which are then burned in the evening. The purpose of the celebration is twofold: to remember the dead and to free and let ascend to heaven the ‘pretas’. The ‘pretas’ are the spirits of those who died as a result of an accident or a drowning and as a consequence were never buried; their presence among men is thought to be dangerous. Under the guidance of Buddhist temples, societies are formed to carry out ceremonies for the pretas–lanterns are lit, monks are invited to recite sacred verses, and offerings of fruit are presented.

In Korea, the festival is called ‘Chusok’. Families take this time to thank their ancestors for the fruits of their labor. The family pays respect to ancestors by visiting their tombs and offering them rice and fruits. This festival occurs in August.

In Sweden, ‘Alla Helgons dag’, is celebrated between Oct 31-Nov 6. This, like many other holidays, has an eve that is either celebrated or is a shortened working day. The Friday before All Saint’s Day is a short day at the university and school children have vacation.

Not everyone celebrates Halloween to honor their dead and ancestors. Halloween is seen as an ‘American’ holiday in modern France. Pronounced ‘ah-lo-een’ by the French, this holiday was virtually unknown there until about 1996!!

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