Celebrated on November 1st, Samhain (pronounced Sow-ween) marked the end of summer and the beginning of the cold season that symbolized death. It was New Year’s for the Celts. Who were the Celts? If you know Irish and Scottish history then you know about the Celts and Celtic heritage. However, the Celts were a fierce and expansive tribe that ruled over all of Europe and into modern day Turkey. They were vanquished by the Roman Empire and ended up only ruling over modern day Britain and Ireland until the end of the Roman Empire when it ruled over modern day Britain several centuries after the collapse of the Celtic Empire.
The Celts in modern day Ireland, Britain, and France celebrated Samhain. They believed on the night of the thirty-first of October the spirits of the dead return to Earth. They looked to Druids, Celtic priests and priestesses, to predict the future for them. The Druids built big bonfires and burned cattle alive as well as burning crops in sacrifice to the Celtic gods and goddesses. Those poor animals! The ancient Celts wore animal skins and tried telling each other’s fortunes around the bonfires of animal torture. Samhain definitely sounds like a party we wouldn’t not attend nowadays, but in ancient times people’s morality was very different and they felt animal sacrifice was necessary as they didn’t understand the science behind weather patterns.
After the celebration, they used embers from the sacred bonfire to relight their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier, as a means of protection from the cold. In 43 AD, the Roman Empire conquered modern day Great Britain and France where the ancient Celts practiced Samhain. They brought in their own holiday, Pomona, which introduced apples and possibly the very first game of bobbing for apples.
On May 13, 609 AD Pope Boniface IV moved all Saint Days, then known as All Martyrs Day, from May 13th to November 1st. Over the next four hundred years the Christian Church replaced Samhain in order to wipe out the belief of Celtic deities. In 1000 AD, All Souls Day was created to be celebrated on November 2nd, which incorporated bonfires, parades, and costumes as saints, devils, or angels. Around 1000 AD Samhain started to be called All Hallow’s Eve and then Halloween.
During Medieval Times in Europe there was a lot of corruption in the Catholic Church and so they convinced uneducated peasants to make soul cakes. Perhaps you have heard the song about soul cakes by the singer Sting. A person made soul cakes and then went door to door in exchange for money. The coins were then given to the Catholic Church, the only church in Europe at the time, and the peasants were told their family members and friends burning in hell or in purgatory would be now sent up to heaven. This was the early version of trick or treating and was done on All Hallow’s Eve.
Even though things had greatly changed, the Celts had celebrated Samhain, then called Halloween, for two thousand years. As Europeans moved to colonial America, Halloween was popular in what is now states like Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina as they were not Puritan. With the mass immigration of Irish coming to the United States because of the potato famine, Halloween became a very popular American holiday. The Irish popularized Halloween in the United States. During the 1800s through the 1930s, trick or treating wasn’t so popular. Instead Halloween parties for both children and adults were common. Not all traditions came over from Ireland however. There was a Halloween tradition to hide a ring in mashed potatoes. The man who found it was meant to be your true love.
Eventually, Halloween became a secular holiday for almost everybody. Modern day Wiccans still call it Samhain and see it as a holiday for themselves to honor those who have gone before them and to mark the day of the harvest and time when the nights get longer. Of course, there are no more soul cakes in exchange for money and certainly no more animal sacrifices. Thank goodness! Today, there are both Halloween parties and trick or treating where children and teenagers go door to door for candy. Until the 1980s, children would go out on October 30th for Beggar’s Night and be given pennies. Believe it or not, today few British children do not celebrate Halloween. Other countries have started celebrating Halloween because children enjoy wearing costumes, but they have their own practices such as Finland where children go trick or treating not for candies but for Halloween cards. Have a safe and Happy Halloween!
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