Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Halloween and Celebrations of the Dead - A History

Everyone has heard of Halloween.  A night for the children to dress up and go trick or treating.  However, this is not how it began.  Let us take a look at the origins of Halloween and the many other celebrations of the dead throughout the history of mankind.


First celebrated in the form of a Celtic Fire festival in Europe around 2000 years ago, Samhain is now celebrated worldwide.  However, over the years it has changed and evolved.  Since ancient times October 31st has been celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and England as a feast of the dead and also marked the new year.  For the Scottish, the Gaelic word 'Samhain' (pronounced 'saw-win'/ saw-vane') simply means 'summer's end'.  In Europe it marks the beginning of winter, when flocks were brought in from the cold until spring and the last crop gathering, known as 'Harvest Home', was celebrated with festivals and fairs. 

According to the tenth-century Gaelic text Tochmarc Emire, Samhain is 'the first of the four quarter days in the medieval Irish calendar, ''when the summer goes to its rest.'''As well as a period of stock-taking and the reorganising of communities for the winter it was a period of supernatural intensity, 'when the forces of darkness and decay were said to be abroad, spilling out from the sidh...'  In order to ward off these spirits, the Irish invoked the help of gods through animal and, possibly, human sacrifice as well as building huge, symbolically regenerative bonfires.

At sunset on October 31st the formal celebrations of Samhain began by lighting a giant bonfire.  The clans and local villagers would gather around the fire to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic deities.  The sacred fires were also a method of cleansing of the past year and a way to prepare for the start of the new year.  During their celebrations, the Celts would wear costumes and dance around the bonfire, with many of these dances telling stories, commemorating the cycle of the Wheel of Life and playing out the cycles of life and death.

Costumes were worn for three primary reasons.  The first was to honour the dead that were allowed to rise from the Otherworld.  The Celts believed souls were released from the land of the dead on the night of Samhain, with those that were trapped in the bodies of animals being set free by the Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. Their costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world.  The second reason was to hide from the souls which the Celts believed returned to destroy crops, hide livestock and 'haunt' the living that may have done wrong.  The third reason was to honour the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks, to give thanks to those deities who assisted the people through the difficulties of the previous year and to ask for their favour during the coming year as well as the cold, harsh mothers of winter ahead. 

It was believed, and still is by many, to be a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest and was an opportunity for the spirits of the dead to join the living for a feast with their loved ones.  It was also believed that the Otherworld provided additional energy for communication between the living and the dead, and was a time for Druid Priests and Celtic Shamans to attempt to tell the fortunes of the people through various methods, such as throwing bones or casting the Celtic Ogham (a script from the 3rd or 4th centuries, sometimes known as the Ogham Script, the Irish Alphabet, of the Celtic Runes).

According to Roman writings, there were other methods, including the reading of tea leaves, rocks and twigs, as wells as what we would today call Channelling.  Some historians suggest that these early people were the first to use the precursor to Tarot Cards.

After the initial celebrations, each family would take a torch or burning ember from the sacred fire and return home.  The home fires would then be re lit with the flames of the sacred fire to protect both the home and those dwelling within.  These fires were kept lit throughout the winter, with the people believing that if the fire was lost, tragedy would soon follow.  Once lit, the family would put food and drink outside their doors to please those spirits which might play tricks on the family.

Some celebrate Samhain over several days and nights, with these days and nights being marked with ceremonies, feasts and gatherings of friends and family as well as the spiritual community.  In the northern hemisphere, Samhain is most often celebrated from sundown on October 31st and throughout the day of November 1st.  Others celebrate on the closest weekend or on the full or new moon closest to this time.  Others still observe the celebration closer to November 6th in order to coincide with the astronomical midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.  In the southern hemisphere, Samhain is observed in the middle of Autumn, in late April and early May.

Then Came the Romans...

By 43AD, the Romans had conquered most of the Celtic territories, bringing with them their own festivals and traditions and merging several of them with the celebration of Samhain.  Feralia, a Roman festival for commemorating dead ancestors is believed by some  to be one of them.  However, according to the writings of Ovid, Feralia was the last day of the Roman festival Parentalia - a nine-day event beginning on February 13th and ending on February 21st.  On February 21st Roman citizens brought offerings to the tombs of their loved ones to honour them.  These offerings consisted of wreaths, grain, salt, violets and bread soaked in wine.  So it seems that the dates may have become confused or, perhaps, changed.  However, the concept is the same.  Ovid tells us that the Romans, in a time of war, failed to honour their dead and, as a consequence, the spirits of their ancestors rose from their graves and roamed around howling until the rituals were performed.


Pomona, or Pomorum, is another Roman festival which, according to some sources, falls on November 1st.  It was believed to be the time to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees, gardens, and orchards as wells as, according to some, the harvest.  She was also considered to be a wood nymph and one of the guardians who watched over people, places and homes.  Her names originates from the word apple, which is her symbol and we can find this symbol in the Samhain and Halloween when we go bobbing for apples.

Lemura is the third Roman festival to be blended with Samhain.  Celebrated in May, this ancient feast was a time for the Romans to exorcise malevolent spirits of the dead from their homes.  According to Ovid, the head of the household would walk barefoot around the house at midnight, throwing nine black beans over his should and chanting while the rest of the household clashed bronze pots.

From Samhain to Halloween

When looking at the origins of modern Halloween we must take into account the Christianization of the pagan celebration of Samhain.  Samhain became the Halloween we are now familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to covert the religious practises of the Celtic people.  In an effort to effectively wipe out the 'pagan' faith, Christians had a huge impact in transforming the traditions of the ancient Celts.

In 601AD Pope Gregory I gave the edict that rather than destroying native peoples' traditions and beliefs, missionaries should use them to convert the people.  For example, if the people worshipped a tree the missionaries should consecrate it to Christ and allow the people to continue worshipping it rather than cutting it down.  This became the basic approach in all Catholic missionary work, with Church holy days purposely set to coincide with native days of celebration and worship.  For example, Christmas, said to be the celebration of the birth of Jesus (the birth date of Jesus is actually unknown), only really falls on December 25th because it corresponded with the Yule celebrations. 

With its emphasis on the supernatural, Samhain was very much Pagan and, as such, was branded by the Catholics as evil and associated with the devil.  Catholic missionaries attempted to diminish these beliefs, allowing the supernatural to persist whilst making the deliberate attempt to define them as being malicious.  Those that continued to follow the old ways were forced into hiding and were branded as witches.  The Christian feast of All Saints Day, a day to honour Christian saints,  was reassigned to November 1st and was an attempt to, in the long run, forever replace Samhain.  Unfortunately for the Church, Samhain never truly died.  The tradition was too strongly ingrained into belief  to be satisfied with this new Catholic tradition.  They tried again to substitute the belief in the 9th century with All Souls' Day, assigned to November 2nd.  While it gave the people a day to pray for the souls of the dead and allowed them to retain their traditional customs while attempting to redefine them, the traditional beliefs and customs lived on.

All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows (meaning sanctified of holy), allowed the ancient Celts to continue their traditions.  On All Hallows Eve, the people continued to celebrate the wandering dead, putting out gifts of food and drink to keep the now considered evil spirits at bay.  This night, in turn, became known as Halloween. 


The practise of trick-or-treating is believed to stem from two practises which were eventually combined.  The first is called 'mumming', a medieval practise where people would disguise themselves and go from door to door receiving offerings for a song, poem, joke or some other 'trick'.  The second was the tradition of leaving out food for the dead to gain their favour. 

A Quick Look at Other Celebrations of the Dead

The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts or Yue Lan is celebrated by the Chinese.  According to traditional Chinese belief, restless spirits roam the earth during the seventh month of the lunar calendar.   The festival is held on the 15th day, with the Chinese making efforts to please and give comfort to these restless spirits by giving them gifts.  The festival has its roots in the Chinese practise of ancestor worship and is celebrated by around 1.2 million people in Hong Kong for the entire seventh lunar month.  Here you can see the people offering sacrifices to their ancestors and wandering spirits, burning incense and joss paper, giving free rice and performing live Chinese operas.

 Festival of the Hungry Ghosts

The Bon Festival of Japan has been celebrated for over 500 years.  It is a three day long Buddhist custom, most commonly celebrated on August 15th, which involves fireworks, games, feasts and dances, including the Bon Odori which is meant to welcome the spirits.  The festival has its roots in a legend in which a man asked Buddha for help when, during meditation, he saw that his deceased mother was trapped and suffering in the realm of Hungry Ghosts.  Buddha told the man to pay homage to the monks that had just finished their summer meditation.  In doing so, the man saw the release of his mother and, overjoyed, broke into dance.

 Bon Festival

The Qingming festival, also known as Ancestors or Tomb-Sweeping Day, is a Chinese national holiday which takes place in mid-April.  It is a time for families to visit the tombs of their ancestors and to give them a good cleaning.  Offerings of food, tea and joss paper are also made.  The festival is said to date back to 732AD, from the reign of Tang emperor Xuanzong who declared that there were too many celebrations of ancestors and said that these should only fall on Qingming.

The Hindu tradition of Pitru Paksha, also known as the Fortnight of the Ancestors, is a 15 day period during the Hindu month of Ashwin where people remember their ancestors, particularly with offerings of food.  Hindu mythology tells us that when the soul of Karna, a deceased warrior, reached heaven he found nothing to eat but gold.  Karna asked the lord of heaven, Indra, where he could find food, but was told that he could only eat gold because he had never offered food to his ancestors when he was alive.  After much discussion, Karna was allowed to return to earth for 15 days to make offerings of food and water.  During the festival offerings are made, as well as daily death rituals which are completed by priests.  If the proper rituals are made and the proper offerings are received and accepted, it is said that the ancestors will bestow wealth, health and salvation on the people.

 El Dia de los Muerto

El Dia de los Muerto or Day of the Dead is, like All Saints' and All Souls' Day, observed on November 1st and 2nd.  It is most ofter celebrated in Mexico where it is a national holiday, but can also be seen in the Philippines and the U.S.  Day of the Dead has its origins in the month long Aztec harvest celebration overseen by the Lady of the Dead, Goddess Mixtecacihuatl.  It is probably one of the most recognisable celebrations of the dead due to the associated imagery of grinning skeletons which, unlike Halloween, are not meant to be frightening, with their intended perception being that of a grand celebration of the deceased.  During the festival you can see people wearing masks whilst feasting, singing and dancing.

Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers


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