Halloween, a story of ethnic blending and migration
Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which was the celebration of the new year. For the Celts, who were a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, the day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the living and the dead became blurred. This blurring helped the Druids, or the Celtic priests, make predictions about the future which helped the people get through the winter.
Sacred bonfires were built, and people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. They wore costumes and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they returned home to relight their fires with the flame of the sacred bonfire.
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory and over the course of 400 years, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional celebration of Samhain. (Feralia, when Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead, and Pomona, the day to honor the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.)
In 609 A.D with the dedication of the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later moved the observance from May 13 to November 1 and expanded the festival to include all saints, as well as martyrs.
In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. All Souls Day was celebrated, like Samhain, with big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes. The night before began to be called All-Hallows Eve, and, eventually, Halloween.
With the migration of Europeans across the ocean, Halloween made its way to North America.
Given the rigid Protestant beliefs of colonial New England, it was not celebrated in New England and was more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. It morphed again as the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as those of the Native Americans meshed. The first celebrations were public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.
In the second half of the nineteenth century when America was flooded with new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, the celebration of Halloween was celebrated nationally.
Borrowing from 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 move in America to move Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes.
At the turn of the century, encouraged by newspapers and community leaders, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.
It has been flourishing ever since and has become the most commercial holiday besides Christmas.
I like this story because it speaks to a mingling of cultures and an evolution of ancient traditions. It reminds us that there is often much backstory that we are not aware of.
We don't see the clash of ideologies, the power struggles, or the influence of conquering empires that were part of its formation.
We only deal with what it is today. History be damned.
But what it is today—a time for adults and children to celebrate in community activities—is fragile and it is precious.
We would do well to heed these community values because they will not continue unless we make a conscious effort to keep them front and center. That we celebrate and participate in community life.
Communities, all across the nation, celebrated this national secular holiday. For that I am thankful.
And speaking of celebrating in community, let us celebrate the seeds of our democracy by voting on November 6.