It is believed that the origins of Halloween may probably be found in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival which honored the dead. The Celts divided their year into four major holidays and, according to this calendar, the year began on a day which now corresponds to November 1 on the modern calendar. The date marked the advent of Winter and, since the Celts were pastoral people, it was a time when cattle and sheep were moved to closer pastures and all livestock secured for the coming months of harsh Winter. It was also a time when crops were harvested and stored...a date which marked both an ending and a beginning in a perpetual cycle of life.
This Celtic festival was observed at a time the people called Samhain...the largest and most significant holiday of the year...also commonly referred to as "All Hollows" Eve. The Celts lived approximately 2,000 years ago in the areas now known as Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France. It was believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other period during the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living. This belief stemmed from the idea that during Samhain, the souls of those who had died during the year would begin their travels into the Underworld. It was also a time when Lord Samhain, Lord of Darkness, would arrive in search of those spirits in order that he might aid them in their journey. Gatherings were held to sacrifice animals, fruits and vegetables. Bonfires were lit to honor the dead and to aid the souls as they journeyed...the fire was also beneficial in keeping such souls away from the living since, on that day, all manner of beings might be abroad...ghosts, fairies, demons...all considered to be part and parcel of the "dark and dread."
By 43 A.D., Roman armies had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. During the course of the following 400 years that Rome ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first of these was known as Feralia, a day in late October when Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second Roman festival to be incorporated into the Celtic Samhain festivities was one which honored Pomona, Roman Goddess of Fruit and Trees.
When Christian missionaries undertook the task of changing the religious practices of the Celtic people, Samhain was gradually transformed into the modern celebration of Halloween. During the early centuries of the First Millennium, before the time of such missionaries as Saint Patrick and Saint Columcille converted the Celts to Christianity, they practiced an elaborate religion through their priestly caste known as the Druids. The Druids were composed of priests, poets, scientists and scholars. As religious leaders, ritual specialists and bearers of knowledge, the Druids were not entirely different from the very missionaries and monks who would later Christianize the Celtic people and forever brand them as evil devil worshippers.
As a result of Christian efforts to eliminate "pagan" holidays (such as Samhain), the Church succeeded in bringing about major transformations to Celtic festivals. In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries regarding the native beliefs and customs of those peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than attempting to obliterate the customs and beliefs of native races, Pope Gregory instructed his missionaries to employ such traditions. For example, if a certain group worshipped a tree, then rather than cut that tree down, the Pope advised that it be consecrated to Christ and its worship be allowed to continue.
In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and became a basic approach used in the work of Catholic missionaries. Church holy days were set to purposely coincide with native festivals. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25 because it corresponded with the Mid-Winter celebration of many cults. In the same manner, Saint John's Day was set to take place on the Summer Solstice.
With its emphasis squarely upon the supernatural however, Samhain was decidedly pagan. While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, the earlier religion's unearthly deities were branded as evil and said to be associated with the devil. Representative of the Church's rival religion, Druids were declared evil worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits and the Underworld of the Celts inevitably became identified with Christianity's concept of Hell. Although this policy diminished beliefs in the traditional Celtic Gods, it could not completely eradicate such ideas. Celtic belief in creatures of the supernatural continued to persist and the Church instituted deliberate attempts to define those who followed the old ways as being not merely dangerous, but also malicious until such people were forced to go into hiding and eventually branded as witches.
The Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November 1. The day honored every known Christian Saint and particularly those who did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. This feast day was intended to act as a substitute for Samhain...to draw the devotion of the Celtic nation and, finally, forever replace the old Pagan festival. However, that was not what occurred, even though the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status over time and became the fairies and leprechauns of more recent tradition.
The ancient beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was far too strong in the minds of believers, who failed to be satisfied with the new and more abstract Catholic feast which honored Saints. Realizing that something would be needed in order to subsume the original energy of Samhain, the Church tried once more in the 9th Century to supplant it with another Christian feast day. This time, it established November 2 as All Souls Day...a time when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead. But, once again, the practice of retaining traditional customs while attempting to redefine them had a sustaining effect...the traditional beliefs and customs lived on, often in new guises.
All Saints Day, otherwise known as Hallowmas ("hallowed" being defined as "sanctified" or "holy"), continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The evening prior to that day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought of as evil. Folk continued to propitiate those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which later became known as Halloween...an ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year's Day dressed in a contemporary fashion. The traditional black and orange associated with Halloween also have their roots in the ancient festival of Samhain...black to represent the time of darkness after the death of the God and orange to await the dawn of his rebirth at Yule.
As one of the world's oldest holidays, Halloween is still celebrated today in several countries around the globe, but it is in North America and Canada that it maintains its highest level of popularity. Every year, 65% of Americans decorate their homes and offices for Halloween...a percentage exceeded only by Christmas. Halloween is the holiday when the most candy is sold and is second only to Christmas in terms of total sales.
In Austria, some people will leave bread, water and a lighted lamp on the table before retiring on Halloween night. The reason for this is because it was once believed such items would welcome the dead souls back to earth on a night which for the Austrians was considered to be brimming with strong cosmic energies.
The Belgians believe that it is unlucky for a black cat to cross once's path and also ulucky if it should enter a home or travel on a ship. The custom in Belgium on Halloween night is to light candles in memory of dead relatives.
Modern Halloween celebrations in Canada began with the arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 1800s. Jack O'Lanterns are carved and the festivities include parties, trick-or-treating and the decorating of homes with pumpkins and corn stalks.
In China, the Halloween festival is known as Teng Chieh. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of family members who have departed while bondires and lanterns are lit in order to light the paths of the spirits as they travel the earth on Haloween night. Worshippers in Buddhist temples fashion "boats of the law" from paper, some of which are very large, which are then burned in the evening hours. The purpose of this custom is twofold: as a remembrance of the dead and in order to free the spirits of the "pretas" in order that they might ascend to heaven. "Pretas" are the spirits of those who died as a result of an accident or drowning and whose bodies were consequently never buried. The presence of "pretas" among the living is thought by the Chinese to be dangerous. Under the guidance of Buddhist temples, societies are formed to carry out ceremonies for the "pretas," which includes the lighting of lanterns. Monks are invited to recite sacred verses and offerings of fruit are presented.
In Czechoslovakia, chairs are placed by the fireside on Halloween night. There is one chair for each living family member and one for each family member's sprit.
At one time, English children made "punkies" out of large beetroots, upon which they carved a design of their choice. Then, they would carry their "punkies" through the streets while singing the "Punkie Night Song" as they knocked on doors and asked for money. In some rural areas, turnip lanterns were placed on gateposts to protect homes from the spirits who roamed on Halloween night. Another custom was to toss objects such as stones, vegetables and nuts into a bonfire to frighten away the spirits. These symbolic sacrifices were also employed as fortune-telling tools. If a pebble thrown into the flames at night was no longer visible in the morning, then it was believed that the person who tossed the pebble would not survive another year. If nuts tossed into the blaze by young lovers then exploded, it signified a quarrelsome marriage. For the most part however, the English ceased celebrating Halloween with the spread of Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation. Since followers of the new religion did not believe in Saints, they saw no reason to celebrate the Eve of All Saints' Day. However, in recent years, the American "trick or treating" custom, together with the donning of costumes for going door-to-door, has become a relatively popular pasttime among English children at Halloween, although many of the adults (particularly the older generations) have little idea as to why they are being asked for sweets and are usually ill-prepared to accommodate their small and hopeful callers.
Unlike most nations of the world, Halloween is not celebrated by the French in order to honor the dead and departed ancestors. It is regarded as an "American" holiday in France and was virtually unknown in the country until around 1996.
In Germany, the people put away their knives on Halloween night. The reason for this is because they do not want to risk harm befalling the returning spirits.
The Halloween celebration in Hong Kong is known as "Yue Lan" (Festival of the Hungry Ghosts) and is a time when it is believed that spirits roam the world for twenty-four hours. Some people burn pictures of fruit or money at this time, believing these images would reach the spirit world and bring comfort to the ghosts.
In Ireland, believed to be the birthplace of Halloween, the tradition is still celebrated as much as it is in the United States. In rural areas, bonfires are lit as they were in the days of the Celts and children dress up in costumes to spend the evening "trick-or-treating" in their neighborhoods. After the visiting, most people attend parties with neighbors and friends. At these parties, many games are played, including "snap-apple," in which an apple on a string is tied to a doorframe or tree, and players attempt to take a bite out of the suspended apple. In addition to bobbing for apples, parents often arrange treasure hunts with sweets or pastries as the "treasure." The Irish also play a card game where cards are laid face-down on a table with sweets or coins beneath them. When a child selects a card, he or she receives whatever prize might be found there. A traditional food is eaten on Halloween called "barnbrack." This is a type of fruitcake which can be baked at home or store-bought. A muslin-wrapped treat is baked inside the cake which, so it is said, can foretell the future of the one who finds it. If the prize is a ring, then that person will soon be wed and a piece of straw means a prosperous year is forthcoming. Children are also known to play tricks upon their neighbors on Halloween night. One of which is known as "knock-a-dolly," where children knock on the doors of their neighbors but then run away before the door is opened.
The Japanese celebrate the "Obon Festival" (also known as "Matsuri" or "Urabon") which is similar to Halloween festivities in that it is dedicated to the spirits of ancestors. Special foods are prepared and bright red lanterns are hung everywhere. Candles are lit and placed into lanterns which are then set afloat on rivers and seas. During the "Obon Festival," a fire is lit every night in order to show the ancestors where their families might be found. "Obon" is one of the wo main occasions during the Japanese year when the dead are believed to return to their birthplaces. Memorial stones are cleaned and community dances performed. The "Obon Festival" takes place during July or August.
In Korea, the festival similar to Halloween is known as "Chusok." It is at this time that families thank their ancestors for the fruits of their labor. The family pays respect to these ancestors by visiting their tombs and making offerings of rice and fruits. The "Chusok" festival takes place in the month of August.
Mexico, Latin America And Spain
Among Spanish-speaking nations, Halloween is known as "El Dia de los Muertos." It is a joyous and happy holiday...a time to remember friends and family who have died. Officially commemorated on November 2 (All Souls' Day), the three-day celebration actually begins on the evening of October 31. Designed to honor the dead who are believed to return to their homes on Halloween, many families construct an altar in their home and decorate it with candy, flowers, photographs, fresh water and samples of the deceased's favorite foods and drinks. Frequently, a basin and towel are left out in order that the spirit can wash prior to indulging in the feast. Candles are incense are burned to help the departed find his or her way home. Relatives also tidy the gravesites of deceased family members, including snipping weeds, making repairs and painting. The grave is then adorned with flowers, wreaths or paper streamers. Often, a live person is placed inside a coffine which is then paraded through the streets while vendors toss fruit, flowers and candies into the casket. On November 2, relatives gather at the gravesite to picnic and reminisce. Some of these gatherings may even include tequila and a mariachi band although American Halloween customs are gradually taking over this celebration. In Mexico during the Autumn, countless numbers of Monarch butterflies return to the shelter of Mexico's oyamel fir trees. It was the belief of the Aztecs that these butterflies bore the spirits of dead ancestors.
In Sweden, Halloween is known as "Alla Helgons Dag" and is celebrated from October 31 until November 6. As with many other holidays, "Alla Helgons Dag" has an eve which is either celebrated or becomes a shortened working day. The Friday prior to All Saint's Day is a short day for universities while school-age children are given a day of vacation.