My favorite holiday of the entire year is quickly approaching. I’m not talking about Christmas or Thanksgiving, or any of our more ‘sacred’ holidays, but Halloween, the most frighteningly fun day of the year. And I’m not alone in my love of Halloween, either: outside of Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Halloween is the third most popular holiday in America; and it is the second most popular holiday in the entire world! But as popular as Halloween is, a lot of people still aren’t fully familiar with its roots.
Depending on your age (mostly), Halloween today is either a time to dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating; or it’s a time to gather with friends, watch scary movies and throw parties. Halloween’s more sacred origins, by all accounts, have kind of fallen by the wayside. Though it’s mostly a secular holiday today, its origins do have spiritual, if not exactly religious, undertones.
All the way back in the 9th century, Irish Celts put on an annual festival, known as Samhain, to commemorate the end of harvest season. With all their crops put into storage and resting right on the cusp of winter, the Celts would take inventory of the supplies already harvested, and slaughter livestock for winter storage. They also believed that on one single day of the year—October 31st—the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead would dissolve.
The spirits of the dead, the Celts thought, would come through that dissolved boundary, and wreak havoc on the living, most damaging by attacking their crops. And so in efforts to ward off the spirits, great bonfires were built. Spirits were supposedly afraid of fire, and it was thought that throwing the bones of recently-slaughtered animals into these fires would make them burn hotter and more brightly.
The custom of wearing costumes comes directly from these festivals, too. Though costumes today run the gambit from princesses to smiling, friendly ghosts, the costumes worn at Samhain were universally evil-looking ghouls. Some of the costumes were designed to resemble what the Celts thought evil spirits looked like—the thinking was that evil spirits would see the Celts in their costumes, and move on, thinking the area was already ‘covered.’ Other costumes were designed to be as horrifying as possible, in the hopes that the evil spirits themselves would be scared away.
Trick-or-treating also comes from Ireland, albeit not specifically from the Samhain festivals. Trick-or-treating likely has its roots in a centuries-old Irish and British custom called ‘souling.’ On Hallowmas, or November 1st, poor villagers would go door-to-door to the homes of the rich. The poor folks would offer sacred prayers for the souls of dead family members, and in return for their prayers they were given food. Over the centuries, of course, souling has merged with Halloween itself, and instead of offering prayers for food, children make light-hearted threats of playing tricks, unless they are given candy.
Though we don’t really afford Halloween the same serious respect as we do other holidays like Christmas, Halloween, like most holidays, has a very sacred and important past. I hope that knowing a little bit more about where this great holiday has its roots will help you enjoy it, just a little bit more! and why not get into the spirit of things and send send out halloween ecards now.