Meaning of Halloween
Have you ever wondered where the celebration of Halloween came from? Most kids are just happy to have an occasion to dress up in costume and gather goodies going door to door in their neighborhood. Halloween is more than just trick or treating.
The origins of Halloween started over 2000 years ago. At that time the Celts lived in the British Isles farming and raising sheep and cattle. They divided the year into two seasons based primarily on the lengthening of daylight in the spring and the shortening of daylight in the fall. They welcomed the light of spring with the festival of Beltane on May 1st and celebrated the coming of the dark season on November 1st with Samhain (pronounced SOW-un).
Samhain means summer’s end. It was harvest time and marked the end of one cycle and the start of a new cycle. The Celts considered it the start of their new year. From the dark and cold would come spring and the next growing season.
Beltane celebrations began at dawn to rejoice in the light. Conversely, Samhain honoring the dark season held festivities at night much like our New Year’s Eve. So the eve of November 1st is October 31st so this was the eve of celebration.
The ancient Celts relied a great deal on astrology. So October 31, being the mid point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, was believed to be an important spiritual time for communing with spirits. The Celts believed the veil between the living and the dead thinned at this time, so that the dead could again be among the living.
One custom was setting extra places at the dinner table with food for dead relatives. Some also left out offerings for other spirits to avoid having spells cast on them. This was a frightening night for the Celts. Although they might welcome ancestors back from the dead, they were afraid of evil spirits and ghosts.
To fend off these evil spirits, they would gather together in a field and build a huge bonfire as bad spirits were afraid of fire. The children would go door to door to gather firewood for the bonfire. Then all the fires in the homes would be put out and relit from the bonfire to signify a new start for the next year.
To relight the fires in their homes, the Celts would carry home an ember from the communal fire at the end of the evening. These embers were placed in hollowed out turnips to be easily carried. This created a lantern effect resembling the jack-o-lantern of today.
The Celts believed the new fires would rejuvenate the waning sun and banish evil spirits from their homes.
Historians report that the Celts would don ghoulish costumes and lead a procession out of town in the hopes that the wandering spirits would follow them.
A part of the Samhain celebration was to honor the Celtic gods. Some Celts would dress up as the deities and go door to door to gather food as an offering to the gods.
As this was the start of the Celtic New Year, divination to magically foretell the future was also commonly practiced. Ancient methods of fortune telling include bobbing for apples, roasting nuts in a fire, and baking cakes which contained talismans of luck.
Eventually Christianity spread to the Celts and their celebrations would intermingle.
At that time, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated All Saints’ Day on the evening of May 13. This was also known as the All Hallows festival. In 835, Pop Gregory IV moved the celebration to the evening of October 31 to coincide with the Celts’ Samhain observance and called it All Hallows Eve with All Saints’ Day being celebrated on November 1. By doing this the church was able to accommodate the beliefs of the pagan Celts and convert them to Christianity. This created a rather interesting merger of celebrations honoring saints and fending off evil spirits.
Beliefs and traditions underwent change over the years. Children began to dress in costumes and go door to door offering to fast for the departed souls in return for an offering.
Since the saints were remembered on November 1, a time to honor and remember friends and family who had passed away was needed. To accommodate this, the church declared November 2 All Souls Day. This was much like the part of the Samhain tradition of setting another place at the table for the departed to return for a meal with the family.
To guide the souls back home, candles were placed in the window. Today glowing pumpkins provide this service. Children would go through town collecting food to be offered to the souls symbolically. Later this food would be given to the poor.
So now you know the history of Halloween.