How Samhain Became Halloween

Fantasma de una mujer con ropa antiguaThe Celtic peoples who were once found all over Europe, divided the year by four major holidays. According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. The festival observed at this time was called Samhain, pronounced Sah-ween. It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year.

The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the past year traveled into the otherworld. Bonfires were lit in honor of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all manner of beings were abroad: ghosts, fairies and demons.

Samain became the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people led by their priestly caste, the Druids. As a result of their efforts to wipe out “pagan” holidays such as Samhain, the Christians succeeded in effecting major transformations. In 601 AD, Pope Gregory the first issued a famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ practices, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them. It became a basic approach used in Catholic missionary work. Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native holy days.

Around the eighth century, the Catholic Church decided to use November 1st as all Saints Day. It was a pretty smart move on their part – the local pagans were already celebrating that day anyway, so it made sense to use it as a church holiday. All Saints’ became the festival to honor any saint who didn’t already have a day of his or her own.

All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows Day (hallowed meaning sanctified or holy) continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong to be satisfied with the new, more abstract Catholic feast honoring saints. The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. It became known as All Hallows Eve and people continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead along with fairies, witches and demons. The folk continued to propitiate those spirits and their masked impersonators by setting out gifts of food and drink.

As the centuries wore on, people began dressing like these dreadful creatures performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This morphed into “Trick or Treat” and to this day, witches, ghosts and skeleton figures of the dead are among favorite costumes and disguises.

All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening which, of course, became the popular day celebrated by kids of all ages. The ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year’s Day turned into our contemporary – and most fun to dress up and Trick or Treat for goodies, the candy lovers’ best day, Halloween.

 


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