The Secret Origins Of Halloween

Hallowe’en is a time of celebration and spookiness It is a unique festival, when children enjoy the darker side of life, disguising themselves as monsters and murderers to trick or treat their neighbours

Pumpkins are carved, apples are bobbed, and the dead come back Despite its supernatural themes, Halloween today is very much a secular affair On October 31st 2017, 179 million Americans celebrated it, spending $91 billion on costumes, decorations and snacks However, Halloween was once a deeply religious occasion in the Catholic Calendar

Many Christians decry its commercialisation But the ancient tradition of Hallowe’en goes back further than the Church likes to admit In Western Christianity, all Christians who have died are remembered on All Souls Day, the 2nd of November The 1st November is All Saints Day, a feast to honour all the saints, whether famous or unknown, and give thanks to God for their lives and deaths Also known as or All Hallows Day or Hallowmas, from the Old English word ‘halig’ which means ‘saint’, celebrations begin on the night of the 31st October – All Hallows Eve, from which comes the name Hallowe’en

It was officially established in the year 835 AD by papal decree, although the date was picked a century earlier by Pope Gregory III, and the festival is recorded in some sources as early as the 4th and 5th centuries It was certainly widely practiced before it became a fixture in the church calendar By medieval times, Allhallowtide practices in Britain included souling Poor people and children would go around their neighbours’ houses and offer to pray for them in return for some food – typically ‘soul cakes’, sweet cakes marked with the sign of the cross This is often considered the origin of trick-or-treating

Yet not all Christians agree we should celebrate Hallowe’en Protestants bemoan the loss of its spiritual significance, Mormons are indifferent to it, and Jehovah’s Witnesses condemn it as a form of devil worship Why do some Christians believe a festival founded by a Pope is satanic? The answer is simple It is because the origins of Hallowe’en can be traced to very unChristian beginnings The modern hallmarks of Halowe’en are mostly American – a secularised melting pot of traditions from many different European cultures

The most influential traditions come from Ireland and Scotland Irish and Scots people began emigrating to America in small groups in the 17th century, and they brought their customs with them In Gaelic culture, there are four seasonal festivals that are tied to religions before Christianity came along In particular, from October 31st to November 1st, they celebrate the festival of Samhain (Sah-win), which marks the end of summer Celebrations include lighting bonfires and dressing up as spirits and otherworldly creatures

They did this to disguise themselves – because at Samhain, the dead and the demonic are believed to roam the Earth, and the best way to avoid being harmed, or to welcome them, is to pretend to be one of them Another Irish tradition is the Jack O’Lantern It comes from the folktale of Stingy Jack, who is cursed to wander the world forever with only a fiery coal in a turnip to light his way In Britain, turnips were hollowed out and carved to make lamps at Hallowe’en But turnips were not available to immigrants in America, whereas pumpkins were in plentiful supply

All these Halloween staples are from pre-Christian religious traditions – including, perhaps, trick-or-treating Samhain was a perfect opportunity for people disguised as ghosts to play pranks, and this is recorded as taking place in the Scottish Highlands in 1736 In some places in Ireland and Scotland, Halloween is known as Mischief Night They rose to prominence in America – and subsequently the world – after the mass migrations of Gaelic people in the first half of the 19th century But Samhain’s traditions are not unique to Gaelic culture

It seems to have been celebrated by Celtic-speaking peoples all over Europe Wales and Brittany have their own versions of Samhain, and a Gaulish calendar from the 2nd century refers to the “three nights of Samonios” – almost certainly the same festival as Samhain The logical conclusion is that the Catholic Church adopted pagan practices into its own forms of worship In the case of Halloween, the Christian church positioned All Saints Day to absorb and effectively undermine older traditions This is a strategy the early Church often used to help itself spread across Europe, which contained many religions with many gods, often attached to specific places or objects

It is easier to convert people if they are allowed to continue their old habits Churches were built nearby or over pre-Christian sites of worship Early medieval Catholicism was filled with local saints, who effectively replaced the local deities Most famously, the biggest festivals in the Christian calendar are borrowed from older religions Christmas supplanted the midwinter festival and Easter takes its name from an Old English goddess

Its chief symbols – eggs and rabbits – are obvious fertility symbols Concepts like Hell were taken from pre-Christian religions, and the Roman Catholic Church was built on the infrastructure of the Roman Empire, which worshipped many gods Hallowe’en is deeply embedded into western culture Its roots lie in profound spiritual beliefs from pre-Christian times It was absorbed by the early Catholic Church to help the process of spreading the Word

But its most distinctive traditions remained localised to the westernmost edges of Europe, where the last vestiges of Celtic culture linger That is, until the last two centuries, when America embraced those traditions It has become more and more popular – and in the process, it has lost its religious significance both in Christian and pagan terms Traditions that once expressed sincere beliefs were appropriated by a newer religion, which in turn was overtaken by commercialism Where Hallowe’en goes next, and what it becomes, will be interesting to observe

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