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What are we celebrating anyway?

Halloween is an annual celebration, but just what are we actually celebrating? How did this peculiar custom originate, and why does it persist? Is it, as some claim, a day for demonic worship, or is it just a harmless vestige of some ancient pagan ritual?

Halloween's origins date back some 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.  The annual celebration called (samwen), marks the beginning of the Celtic New year, actually has its origins in the Catholic Church. The Celts lived in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1st.  This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.

Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31st, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means “summer's end.”  According to the pagan lunar calendar, festivals were celebrated on the "eve" rather than the day, thus making October 31st the beginning of the most sacred of all Celtic holidays. The word was also used for the first month of the ancient Celtic calendar, and in particular the first three nights of that month; the festival marks the beginning of the winter season. "All Hollows Day", also called "All Saints Day", is a Catholic day of religious observance in honor of saints, and comes from a contracted corruption of All Hallows Eve. All Hallows Eve is celebrated on November, while in 5th century BC, Celtic Ireland, summer officially ended on October 31st.

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. One story says that on November 1st, the disembodied spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas.
When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.  Celts believed all laws of space and time were suspended on this one day, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living. The Samhain celebration survived in several guises as a festival dedicated to the dead.

In Ireland and Scotland, the ‘Féile na Marbh’, the "festival of the dead" took place on Samhain. Naturally, not wanting to be possessed, the villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable on the night of October 31st.  They would furthermore dress up in all manner of ghoulish costumes and noisily paraded around the neighborhood, acting as horrific as possible in order to frighten away the spirits looking for bodies to possess. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

Another advantage to the Celts who extinguished their fires was so that all the Celtic tribes could relight their fires from a common source, the Druidic fire that was kept burning in the Middle of Ireland, at Usinach.  Some accounts tell of how the Celts would burn someone at the stake that was thought to have already been possessed, as a lesson to the other spirits. Other accounts of Celtic history debunk these stories as myth.
The Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own, but in the first century AD, Samhain was assimilated into celebrations of some of the other Roman traditions that took place in October, such as their day to honor Pomona, the goddess of fruit and fruitfulness, and the wife of Vertumnus, the god of orchards.

By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain is one possible explanation regarding the traditional "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.  The thrust of the practices also changed over time to become more ritualized. As belief in spirit possession waned, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more ceremonial role.

The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840's by Irish immigrants fleeing their country's potato famine. At that time, the favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses, unhinging fence gates, and creating general havoc.

 

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