Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Origins of Halloween

20th Century Postcard

When I was a little girl Halloween meant wearing a fun homemade costume, going out at night without parental supervision and even better we received free candy.

When I was young some even still treat-or-treated the night before October 31 on “Beggars Night”.  The idea here was if you didn’t give candy—a trick would surely be played.

By the time I was an adult things had changed quite a bit. Now, children were accompanied by an adult and wore reflective clothing both done with thoughts of safety in the forefront. People had lost the notion of the word “trick” in the phrase trick-or-trick and Halloween was much more commercialized. 

But the biggest change to Halloween was when several churches decided to inform their members that Halloween was actually a “pagan” ceremony –which should not be observed because of its  evil origins. 

Is Halloween based in “evil” traditions? Actually no, because Halloween is based upon traditions that came about after Christianity took hold in Europe.

Paganism was observed in many places around Europe before Christianity took hold. 

After Christianity became the religion of choice in the 2nd century some pagan ceremonies were blended with Christianity but none of the earlier unenlightened pagan practices, such as human sacrifice etc., continued. 

The origins of our Halloween today actually evolved out of a mixture of pagan and Christian practices from the 9th century. 

By this time the pagan observances that remained were definitely not evil. *

As stated above, what remained of the earlier pagan practices was very tame and actually very acceptable. The Halloween we celebrate in part comes from the pre-Christian festival known as Samhain. Pronounced “Sah-wen”. 

Samhain was a major feast day for the Celtic people across Europe. It celebrated the New Year that began on November 1st.  It also observed the changing of seasons. It celebrated the last harvests, the coming of cold weather and darker days—less daylight each day.

One part of this ceremony was the belief that relatives that had died in the previous twelve months were granted access into the “otherworld” during Samhain. 

The ancient Celts left out food and drink to comfort these loved and lost wandering spirits. Large bonfires where built to frighten away any evil spirits that might be about. 

Another part of Samhain was “mumming”. People dressed in disguises and went from home to home performing in exchange for food and drink. This tradition also involved pranking. This is why ghosts and trick-or-treating are connected to the American Halloween. **

When the introduction and acceptance of Christianity spread throughout Europe the original Samhain celebration was used to celebrate church feast days and holy days. Hence the melding took hold.

In The Origins of Halloween in America Part 2 I share more specific American Halloween traditions and how they came about.

* This history actually reflects that people all over Europe became more enlightened. The Dark Ages were over. The ancient pagan practices from hundreds of years before were no longer acceptable.

** The Scottish and Irish immigrants that migrated to North America brought with them the traditions we associate with Halloween today. 

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