In Her Mind

In Her Mind — Origins of Halloween

Hello everyone, and welcome to the very first edition of In Her Mind 🙂

Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated with legends, myths and mysteries; tales of magic and lore, mischievous faeries, wandering ghosts, gods and deities, and any other supernatural occurrence that makes you wonder: what if..?  In this journal-series (that I will attempt to write as often as I can), I’ll be talking about all the many things that interest and influence me in my creative process, contemplating fact from fiction; and hopefully giving you, too, some food for thought.

Today, taking you with me on a journey, we’ll go back to the beginning.

A journey to the origins of Halloween, a celebration known in most corners of the world that is filled with shadows and ghosts, trick-or-treating and haunted stories. Like with many things that have a touch of the mysterious and supernatural, Halloween has — even though I’m Dutch, and we don’t celebrate it (yet) as they do in America — been a fascination for me; a fascination that began with movies like Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas (for yes, the latter may also be a Christmas movie, but it plays for most part in the land of Halloween 🙂 )

With October in full sway, I began to wonder these last days what may have been the true origins of Halloween, besides the basic facts I knew about traditions that involved fending of evil spirits, and when I had a moment between projects, I turned to my dear friend Mr. Google, and this my friends, was what I found.

Did you know it all started 2000 years ago?

Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, where they celebrated their new year on November 1st. This day marked the end of summer (and the harvest) and the beginning of the winter period; a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before this new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, a veil growing thin — making the ghosts of the deceased able to return to earth.

Firmly believing that these ghosts could cause various kinds of trouble, like damaging crops and mischievous antics, the Celts also had strong positive thoughts about the presence of these otherworldly spirits; as for one it supposedly made it easier for the Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future: an important source of comfort and direction for people who were entirely dependent on the fickle ways of the natural world back then. And secondly, during the festival they felt closer to deceased relatives and friends, and it was not uncommon that they would set places at the dinner table for these friendly spirits, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road, and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.

To commemorate Samhain, the Druids would build huge, sacred bonfires, where the people would gather round to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During these celebrations, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. Eventually, when the celebrations were over, they would re-lit their home’s hearth fires (which they had extinguished earlier that evening) from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the long, dark winter ahead.

Influences from the Roman Empire

Bonfires, mischievous spirits, and costumes, reading all that sounds rather familiar to our contemporary traditions, but they still made a long way, through the Roman Empire no less, to slowly come to what we know now.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of the Celtic lands, and in the course of the four hundred years that they ruled supreme, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The Romans made it a habit of adopting cultures and celebrations of the people as it expanded the Empire’s reach, much like Christian Missionaries did when trying to “convert” pagan’s to their religion over the ages that followed.
   The first of these Roman festivals was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead, and the second was a day to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.

Fun fact to mention is that the symbol of Pomona is the apple, and it is thought that the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practised today on Halloween.

All Hallow’s Eve, All Saint’s Day & All Souls’ Day

By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread far and wide into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with (and slowly erased) the older Celtic rites. November 1st became known as All Saint’s Day, which is, according to the Catholic church; “a call to live as saints, and remind us how we’re supposed to live.” In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2nd All Souls’ Day, a day to honour the dead, and by that they meant all the dead, even those who were deemed not to have been given God’s mercy upon their departure.

It will not surprise anyone that it’s widely believed today that this was an attempt by the church to replace the Celtic festival of the dead, with a related church-sanctioned holiday 😉

All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and the dressing up in costumes of saints, angels and devils. This celebration is, alike to Halloween, also still practised worldwide through events like the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) or the Chinese Ghost Festival.
   To remember the departed, many cultures prepare meals for the souls of the dead, light candles or leave flowers on relatives’ graves and some anoint tombstones with holy water or pour milk over them.

Another fun fact to mention is that the All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it —the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion— began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

Halloween as we know it today

Mainly due to the arrival of many Irish and English immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century, the celebration of Halloween slowly became popularized nationally in America. Borrowing from these Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money; a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
   In the late 1800s, there was a rippling move in America to change Halloween into a holiday that was more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations, and because of these efforts, Halloween lost most of its darker superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century, and a new American tradition was born — leaving us (after many, many centuries and influential changes) with Halloween as we know it today 🙂

Last fun fact; Did you know, present day, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion (!) annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.

And, what does Halloween mean to me?

As I mentioned at the start of this journal, I’ve never known Halloween in the sense that many who read this will, but I have been (obviously, with this long exploration above) interested in it for quite some many years.
   When I grew up, Halloween was simply a concept for me, something that was explained at school as an American holiday, where kids would dress up and go round doors asking for candy. (A notion that appealed to me greatly, I confide 😉 ) But the older I got, this once typically American festivity, began to make its way to our country and it has been slowly gaining success.

Shops these days are filled with cool decorations to buy, and since September I can’t walk into a store without being eyed by wicked witches, or grinning jack-o-lanterns. And, I have to admit, I like it. A lot. Every year I buy something new to grow my home’s small collection of Halloween fun. But (that commercially fuelled success aside), the thing I still love most about it is that other, older side of Halloween that goes back to spirits and ghosts possibly wandering the earth again on October 31st. Somehow, it always feeds my inspiration and curiosity, and not a year goes by that I don’t feel inspired by the many tales of mystery, magic and superstition…

So, in closing, tell me; what are your thoughts on Halloween, and the whole story of how it actually started? Do you celebrate it, or not? Leave me a line down below (:

Love, Kiyo

Sources:

History, Rome Across Europe, Catholic.org (info) / Pexels (stock)

Posted by Kiyo in In Her Mind, 4 comments