History of Halloween
Halloween can trace its origins back almost 2,000 years ago to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts were a group of people who were predominantly made up of the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and groups out of Northern France. These Celtic groups celebrated their New Year on November 1st, this date signified the end of summer and the harvest and marked the beginning of the dark and cold winter. They believed that the night before the New Year, October 31st, that the line between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its weakest. Meaning that the ghosts of the past could return to earth on Samhain.
It was believed that the presence of these spirits made it easier for the Druids, who were Celtic priests, to see or predict the future. These prophecies about the future would provide comfort to the Celts during the long, cold winters. During Samhain events the Druids would build huge bonfires, these were seen as sacred because parts of the crops and other items would be offered up as sacrifices to their Celtic deities. This was done in hope of having a good winter, one where no lives would be lost and there would be enough food for all. Attire for a Samhain celebration consisted of animal heads or skins, which would eventually translate into our modern day interpretation as a costume. As the celebration wound down the participants would relight their hearth fires, fireplaces in their homes, with fire from the bonfire. This was in hopes that the sacred bonfire would help protect them in the coming winter.
Spirits, Prophecies and Sacrifice
By the year 43 A.D. the Roman Empire had conquered large territories of Celtic land, this Roman rule would continue for about 400 years. During this time there were two Roman festivals that were thought to have been combined with the festival of Samhain to create the Halloween we know today. The first Roman festival was Feralia, taking place in late October; this was a festival commemorating the passing of the dead. The second was to honor the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. Pomona’s symbol is the apple, it is thought that this symbol incorporated with Samhaim gave us the tradition of bobbing for apples during Halloween.
By the 9th century Christianity had spread throughout most of the Celtic territories, where it would blend into the older Celtic culture. During the year 1000 A.D., the Catholic Church would make November 1st All Souls’ Day, a day to honor those who have passed. It is thought that the church was trying to replace Samhain with a church-sanctioned holiday. All Souls’ Day closely replicated Samhain, large bonfires were lit, parades were done in honor of the spirits, and costumes were worn such as angels, saints, and the devil. The night before All Souls’ Day or All Saints’ Day was known as All-hallows. This would then turn into All-Hallows Eve, and then into Halloween. Making the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion into what we know today as Halloween.
The Tale of Stingy Jack and The Jack O'Lantern
To end on a fun note, did you know the tradition of carving pumpkins originated from Irish culture as well? It all begins with a legend about a man named Stingy Jack. He was said to have invited the Devil to have a drink with him, but he didn’t want to pay for the drinks. Living up to his name, Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. The Devil did as Jack asked, but instead of paying for the drinks Jack stuck the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross, which would prevent the Devil from changing back into his original form. Eventually Jack would free the Devil, but under one condition, that the Devil would not bother Jack for one year and that if he were to die the Devil would not claim his soul. The following year Jack would try his luck with the Devil once again. He would trick the Devil into climbing up a tree to pick a piece of fruit, once up there Jack carved the sign of the cross into the tree’s bark. Jack would not allow the Devil to come down until he promised to not to bother Jack for another ten years. Soon after this incident Jack died, but God would not allow someone as unsavory as Jack into Heaven. Due to Jack’s deal with the Devil he could not claim his soul, meaning Jack was not allowed into Hell either. As he was sent into the dark night, the Devil provided Jack with one piece of burning coal to light his way in the darkness. To carry this burning coal, Jack would place it in a carved out turnip to light his way as he roamed Earth forever. The Irish referred to his ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack O’Lantern”. In Ireland to ward off Stingy Jack or other wandering evil spirits, the Irish would carve scary faces into Turnips or Potatoes and place them in the windows of their homes. As the Irish immigrated to the United States they brought this tradition with them. They found that pumpkins, which were native to America, made for the perfect Jack-o-lantern.