This archived article was written by: Nick Critchlow
It is Halloween again, and you must already be planning all of the traditional things that Americans do, but did anyone ever wonder where these American traditions came from?
The origins of Halloween date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, meaning “summers end.” The Celts lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. The end of the summer was significant to them because it meant the structure of their lives changed radically. Their new year began on Nov. 1. 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.
They believed that on the night before the New Year, Oct. 31, the veil between the worlds of the living and dead became thin. They believed that the spirits of the dead could return to Earth. They considered this to be the time to pay homage to their departed ancestors. To commemorate these events, the druids built huge sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic deities.
You may be asking what all of this has to do with Halloween? It is because many of today’s traditions, such as trick-or-treating, wearing costumes and carving jack-o-lanterns all stem from the Celts.
On Samhain, the Celts believed that if you left food out for the spirits they would be satisfied and not bring harm to your home. This evolved into the early All Souls’ Day Parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. However if you did not give generously, you were considered a bad person and got a trick. This may be where trick-or-treating came from.
Many different theories exist as to where the jack-o-lantern came from. One theory on the Samhain celebrations, the Celts would carve frightening faces into turnips and light them on fire, this was believed to scare away evil spirits. When the Irish came to America, they switched from turnips to pumpkins because pumpkins where more predominant in America.
Another theory is that during the Samhain celebrations, the Celts would put human skulls on their altars. However it was never meant for evil purposes, it was to remind them of the people who have passed on from this life into the spirit world. Some scholars think that when the Christian Church came into power, the Celts wanted to keep the tradition alive without letting the Church know what they where doing, so they started carving a face into hallow vegetables to represent the ancestral skull.
The image of the witch flying across the air on a broomstick is actually mundane in nature. During the fall months, the Celtic people would jump through the fields on broomstick like a hobbyhorse. It was believed that the higher they jumped, the higher the crops would grow in the spring.
The tradition of wearing costumes also has some significance. On Samhain when it was believed that the ghosts came back to the earthly plane, the people would dress up like a spirit to keep their identity safe.
I hope that some of this information will shed some light on these traditions, and that you will look at many of the things that we consider Halloween fun a little different.