The origins of the Halloween we celebrate today date back 2,000 years, to the Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-in,) which took place on October 31st, the day before the Celtic new year.
To the Celts, this date marked the time when summer, the season of vibrance and youth, blended with winter, the season of death - death of the crops, and often, of the population. Quite a maelstrom winter must have been to these ancient pagans!
And so, they comforted themselves the only way they knew how to every year on Samhain: by dancing around a great fire of burning crops and animals, wearing masks made of animal heads.
They believed the 31st to be the day that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth and destroyed the crops (because the concept of frost was not yet understood.) The spirits that filled the air also made the Druids more perceptive of visions of the future, which the people held near to their hearts as the cold entered their homes and threatened lives.
As the Roman empire encroached upon the Celtic land, Samhain later was combined with two Roman holidays: Feralia, the celebration of the dead, and Pomona, the day that honored the goddess of fruit.
Some believe that the game of bobbing for apples derives from the goddess Pomona, the apple being her symbol.
The day before All Saints day was called All Hallow's Eve, origin of the word Halloween from the 16th century. According to Historian Nicholas Roger:
"some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain", which comes from the Old Irish for "summer's end".
Samonios on the Coligny calendar
After the Roman empire fell, it was the Christians' turn to acknowledge the blasphemous traditions of the people that they took over, and rename them, to make their religion easier to swallow for their besieged.
The church came up with All Saints day on November 1st to serve this purpose, which was celebrated similarly to Samhain, except the costumes were of priests and angels instead of animal hides.
Snap-Apple Night, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1833.
Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland.
The caption in the first exhibit catalogue:
There Peggy was dancing with Dan
While Maureen the lead was melting,
To prove how their fortunes ran
With the Cards could Nancy dealt in;
There was Kate, and her sweet-heart Will,
In nuts their true-love burning,
And poor Norah, though smiling still
She'd missed the snap-apple turning.
On the Festival of Hallow Eve.
The celebrating of Halloween was somewhat limited by the no-fun Protestants that fled to America, but was accepted in the southern colonies. Colonists danced around, told ghost stories, and made mischief. The migration of Europeans to America in the 19th century helped to popularize the holiday of Halloween, and also the practice of trick-or-treating. The youthful excitement and vivacious atmosphere of the night survived; A two thousand-year-old tradition was never fully trampled by invaders and conquerors.
Halloween lived through several American generations who tried to extract the mischief from the holiday to make it a wholesome activity for families, however, the Hallow's Eve we celebrate today involves a quite intact aspect of wrong-doing and misbehaving.
The ancient Pagan new year's eve of invading ghosts and sacrifice is survived today by the horror movies, terrifying costumes, and scandalous parties that we all take for granted.
Halloween on History Channel
Despite all of its transformations and attempted conversions to something more holy, people still act naughty on Halloween. And every year, when the air gets a little chilly, and as the days get shorter, I get a very distinct, alive feeling inside. Maybe the Celts were onto something when they proclaimed October 31st as the most spiritually alive out of all the nights of the year, or maybe it's all the Facebook event invitations and slasher films on TV.
Either way, Halloween is ancient, carnal, and historically frowned upon by conservative groups, making it my favorite holiday. Join me in my celebrating!
Maskapade Editorial Desk