Halloween Celebrations

History of Halloween

History of Halloween

History of Halloween Halloween is among the oldest traditions in the world as it touches on an essential element of the human condition: the relationship between the living and the dead. Every recorded civilization has created some form of ritual observance focused on what happens to people when they die, where they go, and how the living should best honor those who have passed or respond to the dead who seem unwilling or unable to move on.

Countries around the world today celebrate Halloween in one form or another, from Mexico’s Day of the Dead to China’s Tomb Sweeping Day. The modern-day observance of Halloween in countries such as the United States and Canada – where this tradition is most popular – share in this ancient tradition even though some aspects of the holiday are relatively recent developments, and can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain.

Halloween is among the oldest traditions in the world as it touches on an essential element of the human condition: the relationship between the living and the dead. Every recorded civilization has created some form of ritual observance focused on what happens to people when they die, where they go, and how the living should best honor those who have passed or respond to the dead who seem unwilling or unable to move on.

Countries around the world today celebrate Halloween in one form or another, from Mexico’s Day of the Dead to China’s Tomb Sweeping Day. The modern-day observance of Halloween in countries such as the United States and Canada – where this tradition is most popular – share in this ancient tradition even though some aspects of the holiday are relatively recent developments, and can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain.

Christian groups through the years have routinely attempted to demonize and denigrate the observance, in part by repeating the erroneous claim that Sam Hain was the Celtic god of the dead and Halloween his feast. This error comes from the 18th-century CE British engineer Charles Vallancey, who wrote on the Samhain festival with a poor understanding of the culture and language, and has been repeated uncritically since. It was actually the Church itself, however, which preserved the Samhain tradition in the West by Christianizing it in the 9th century CE, setting the course for a pagan Northern European religious tradition’s transformation into a worldwide secular holiday which has become the most popular – and commercially lucrative – of the year, second only to Christmas.

Samhain

Halloween traditions in the West date back thousands of years to the festival of Samhain (pronounced `Soo-when’, `So-ween’ or `Saw-wen’), the Celtic New Year’s festival. The name means “summer’s end”, and the festival marked the close of the harvest season and the coming of winter. The Celts believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead were thinnest at this time and so the dead could return and walk where they had before. Further, those who had died in the past year and who, for one reason or another, had not yet moved on, would do so at this time and could interact with the living.

THE OBSERVANCE OF SAMHAIN INCLUDED STOCKING UP SUPPLIES FOR THE WINTER, SLAUGHTERING CATTLE, AND DISPOSING OF THE BONES IN “BONE FIRES”.

Very little is known of the rituals of ancient Samhain because the Church Christianized it – as with many pagan festivals – and what information is available comes from Irish monks who recorded the pre-Christian history of their people as well as other Christian scribes denigrating pagan rites. It seems, however, that the observance included stocking up supplies for the winter, slaughtering cattle, and disposing of the bones in “bone fires” which, in time, came to be known as bonfires. There were gatherings of communities for feasting and drinking while this was going on, but there was also the awareness of the “thin time” of the year and the possibility of otherworldly visitors showing up at the party.

Departed loved ones were expected – and welcomed – and the practice of setting out favorite foods for the dead may have originated as early as 2,000 years ago (though this is unclear), but many other kinds of spirits – some which never had human form – could also appear. Elves, fairies, the “wee folk”, sprites, and dark energies were just as likely to pay a visit as those one longed to see again one last time.

Further, there was a very good chance that the spirit of a person one may have wronged would also make an appearance. In order to deceive the spirits, people darkened their faces with ashes from the bonfires (a practice later known as “guising”), and this developed into wearing masks. A living person would recognize the spirit of a loved one and could then reveal themselves but otherwise remain safe from the unwanted attention of darker forces.

All Hallows’ Eve

How long ago these rituals were included in the observance of Samhain is unknown, but some form of them were probably in place by the time Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century CE. The hill of Tlachtga (Hill of the Ward) in County Meath was the site of the bonfire lighted on or around 31 October signaling the beginning of Samhain festivities when it was answered by the much more prominent fire from the Neolithic site of the Hill of Tara across from it. Archaeologists from University College Dublin have dated the excavated earthworks to 200 CE but note these are only the latest developments at a site first used for ceremonial fires over 2,000 years ago.

The hill is named for the druidess Tlachtga, daughter of the powerful druid Mug Ruith who traveled the world learning his craft. She was raped by the three sons of Simon Magus, infamous for his confrontation with St. Peter in the biblical Book of Acts 8:9-24, and gave birth to triplets on the hill that bears her name before dying there. The inclusion of a biblical villain in her story, obviously, places the legend in the Christian era and aligns Tlachtga with St. Peter in so far as they shared a common adversary. Scholars believe that the Tlachtga story, like so many Celtic legends, was Christianized after the coming of St. Patrick to Ireland and her rape by the sons of Simon Magus was added to a pre-existing account.

Other Influences on Development

As it was with Paternalia, Feralia, Lemuria, and many others, so it was with Samhain. Previously, the Samhain festival was associated with all those who had gone on before, with the earth, the change of the year, and this transformation was marked by celebration and communal activities. Once the festival was Christianized, All Hallows’ Eve became a night of vigil, prayer, and fasting in preparation for the next day when the saints were honored at a far tamer celebration.

The old ways had not died out, however, and bonfires were still lighted – only now in honor of Christian heroes – and the turning of the seasons was still observed – only now to the glory of Christ. Many of the rituals which accompanied this new incarnation of the festival are unknown but by the 16th century CE, the practice of “souling” had become integral. The poor of the town or city would go about knocking on doors asking for a soul-cake (also known as a soul-mass-cake) in return for prayers.

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