Halloween is an annual holiday celebrated each year on October 31. It originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced: “sow-win”), a time that marked the period between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, the last harvest and the beginning of the dark period of the year. This was and still is considered a time when the veil between the living and spirit worlds, as well as the “other worlds” (such as the fairy world), is thinnest. People would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off spirits and disguise themselves from ghosts. Samhain was celebrated between October 31 and November 1.
As Christianity attempted to settle into the pagan communities, the church tried to reframe Samhain as a Christian celebration. It was first moved from October to May by Pope Boniface during the fifth century; however, the people continued to celebrate the quarterly fire festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. Then in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III returned to the original dates and declared November 1 All Saints Day. Over time, Samhain became All Hallows Eve or Halloween, and November 1 became All Saints Day. In addition, November 2 would become All Souls Day.
Ancient Celts held Samhain (the end of summer) as the most important of the four quarterly fire festivals. It marked the time between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.
The Modern Mirrors the Ancient
Our modern Halloween traditions mirror some of the traditions borne in the origins of Samhain. We wear costumes to disguise ourselves from evil spirits and carve and illuminate pumpkins just as the Celts lit gourds to bring light to the dark and guide departed spirits back to the spirit world. Candies and food are shared as well – places are set at the table in honor of souls passed, and candy is placed by doorways to appease the fairies and those of the other worlds.
Traditionally on Halloween (or the day before, known in the U.S. as Mischief Night), people will pull pranks on one another. In ancient times, fairies were often blamed for the mischief, and perhaps they still are, but human naughtiness is usually the real culprit.
Even trick-or-treating harkens back to earlier Celt days. When children don costumes and knock on people’s door seeking out treats, it’s tied to the old Irish and Scottish tradition of “mumming” or “guising” (as in disguising) done in the nights leading up to Samhain. People would get into costume and go door to door singing songs to the dead in return for cakes if they were lucky. It even sounds a bit like Christmas caroling. The singing can be considered as one of the other “tricks” performed to receive “treats.”
Superstitions and Divinations
Some of our modern-day superstitions are callbacks to ancient times, especially Halloween. For instance, no superstitious person today is hoping for a black cat to cross their path; it’s considered bad luck. However, in the middle ages, people avoided black cats because it was believed that witches would disguise themselves as a black cat.
If you were originally from Scotland or Ireland, you might choose the time of the harvest to see a fortune teller to perform various dating divination works such as burning chestnuts in a fire or receiving some nutty, sugary sweets to eat before bed on Halloween in the hopes of seeing your future love in a dream.
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