Unlike the other common holidays we celebrate these days, who owe their popularity to Hallmark and consumerism, Halloween is ancient. It’s a celebration of the spookier, unknowable side of life: death. Not only is death unknowable, but attempting to understand it is something that’s uniquely human. You could say that Halloween is the only true, human holiday.
Wondering where it came from? Well, Halloween is actually the culmination of several different holidays from three different cultures.
Halloween comes originally from the Celtic peoples of Western Europe. The Celts were polytheists who believed in the power of nature, mainly because their lives were so tied to the agricultural calendar. October 31st, for the Celts, was Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’), one of four major holidays that fell throughout the year. This was the day the dead could come alive and cause mischief. If you wanted to thwart your dead relatives so they wouldn’t cause you trouble, you wore a costume (usually an animal skin) and acted like them– usually with rampant trickery. If that wasn’t really your game, you could also make a sacrifice to the dead– by leaving them a treat or throwing that treat into a big bonfire.
The Celts are also responsible for the tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns. For thousands of years, people in Ireland have carved turnips, tubers, and beets in the fall, strictly for fun, and turned them into lanterns to light their way home on cold nights. But when many Irish came to the New World, they found gourds easier to locate than the veggies of the old country.
Around the turn of the first millennium, Romans began to carefully make their way into Celtic territory. And by that, I mean they beat back the Celts savagely through a whole lot of warfare and death. But the Romans knew one thing a lot of conquerors seem to forget: when you take over a place that has an entirely different culture, you don’t suppress it. You assimilate it. A cultural identity unites people, which could lead to uprising. If you make your culture so unidentifiable from theirs, they will have less to unite under.
Thus, the Romans blended the tradition of Samhain with both their own celebration of the dead (because that was easy) and also with a harvest celebration for the goddess of abundance, Pomona. Pomona’s main concern was orchard fruit, so putting her holiday right in the middle of autumn was perfect.
Have you ever heard of a local Christian church turning a spooky Halloween celebration into a much less fun harvest celebration? Well, those churches should take a good, long look at their own history.
Not only is the harvest celebration a celebration of a Roman goddess (see above), but the Christians added a whole new level of spooky to their celebrations.
You seem, when Christianity came to the British Isles, they had learned a thing or two from Romans (seeing as, you know, they were the remnants of the Romans). They decided to blend their holidays with the local ones to keep the local people under their thumb.
In Catholicism, November 1st is All Saint’s Day and November 2nd is All Souls Day. Which means that October 31st is All Saints Eve. All Saint’s Day is a celebration of all the saints and martyrs who have died. That may seem not very Halloween-y, until you remember that most of them died horrifically. All Souls Day celebrates those who have passed on throughout the year, which is both heartwarming and a bit macabre. It’s also a nice callback to the Celts’ original intention of the holiday: celebrating the dead and engaging in the mysteries of being human.