Torn between fun and scary traditions, between religious celebration and pagan superstition, Halloween has long surpassed the boundaries of the English speaking countries. The holiday marked by costumed parties, bonfires, carved pumpkins, wandering souls and creepy house decorations made its triumphal entry in different cultures all over the world, demolishing religious barriers and quenching people’s thirst for spooky fun. However, Halloween has passed through numerous stages and has been constantly “refined” by religious beliefs and historical conditions until it reached its current version. Its history has been marked by witchcraft, strange beliefs, pagan rituals and Christian vanities, culminating with a tribute paid to the Holly Marketing which managed to make Halloween a profitable business all over the world.
During Samhain people dressed up in animal skins to chase away the spirits and the wild animals which may get close to the celebrating crowd. There was also the habit for women to endorse manly clothing and men to dress up in women’s clothing to deceive the spirits. This is probably the first trace of the Halloween costume tradition, a tradition that will be successfully perpetuated along time.
Another Halloween tradition that it’s supposed to have its origins in this 2,000 years old festival is the pumpkin carving. The Celts took parts of the bonfire to their homes to protect their belongings from the avenging spirits, so they carved turnips, rutabagas and gourds to safely transport the fire. However, other traditions, legends and myths, including the well-known Stingy Jack’s story, are also associated with the pumpkin carving tradition.
Halloween and the Roman Conquest
In 43 A.D., the territories inhabited by Celtic population were conquered by the Romans, who brought with them their own culture civilization and beliefs. The Romans celebrated the dead on Feralia, a holiday which took place in late October, so the Celtic traditions were successfully combined with the Roman ones, bringing Halloween one step closer to the holiday we all know today. In addition to Feralia, there was another Roman holiday which impacted Halloween – Pomona. Pomona was the goddess of trees and was symbolized by an apple, therefore there are signs that the tradition of bobbing apples was a Roman ritual taken over by the Celts and incorporated in the traditional Samhain.
Halloween and Christianity
Samhain was a celebration which survived in time and the Celtic beliefs, although altered by the passing of time, continued to have a great impact on the British Islands inhabitants. Their Christianization has not affected their faith in wandering spirits, in the purifying power of bonfires and in Druidic prophecies. However, the Christian authorities were not fond of the idea that a festival reminiscent from a pagan religion was still practiced in Christian communities. Therefore the efforts of abolishing the Samhain were more intense in the 7th and 8th century, culminating with a “Christianization” of the original celebration.
In 609 A.D. Pope Boniface IV established May 13th as Day of the Dead in an attempt to erase old Celtic rituals and beliefs. However, the bonfires and costumes specific to Samhain were still seen in the last day of October, sign that the pagan celebration was held in parallel with the Christian holiday. This determined Pope Gregory III to overlap the Christian holiday with the pagan ritual, in an attempt to transform the old celebration in a religious holiday that will commemorate the dead as well as the Christian martyrs and saints. The holiday was renamed “All Saints Day” or “All Hollows Day” (or Hallowmas which in Old English stands for “All Saints Day”) and was celebrated on November 1st. Yet, the ghost of Samhain continued to hunt the Christian authorities as the English communities did not want to give up the ancient festival. Because it preceded All Hollows Day, the celebration was known as “All Hollows Eve” (which has later on evolved into “Halloween”).
Alongside the religious celebration, another Halloween tradition was born. Instead of leaving food at the doors for the wandering spirits, people were encouraged to share parts of their meals or specially baked “soul cookies” with the poor in exchange of prayers for dead’s souls. Christians believed that the dead will not step in the other world unless the living prayed intensely for their soul. In exchange of a “soul cookie” (sweet pastry) poor people promised to pray for the dead, ensuring their smooth passage in the other world. The process was called “go a-souling” and it rapidly grew popular among children too, preceding what we now know as “trick-or-treat”.
Halloween and Guy Fawkes
The introduction of the Protestant religion left people without one of their favorite holidays: the All Hollow’s Eve. The Protestants did not recognize the saints and their importance in the mediation between person and God, therefore a holiday that would celebrate the saints was unnecessary. However, the holiday was reincarnated in Guy Fawkes Day in 1606, when Fawkes was executed for his attempt of removing King James from the throne on November, 5th. Bonfires (known as “bone fires”) were lit again, this time to symbolically burn Pope’s bones, while children roamed from door to door asking for money to build their own effigies. While the phrase “a penny for Guy” was popular at the time, the Guy Fawkes Day was soon left in oblivion.
Halloween is a complex holiday which has grown, evolved and refined along with the times and societies in which it has been practiced. Yet, its core always remained the same: there is a time when boundaries are blurred, social barriers are crossed and reality mingles with fantasy in a one of a kind moment. That time is called Halloween! Enjoy it!