Strange Halloween History
Halloween is the favorite holiday of scores of people. We love to dress up, hand out candy, and watch scary movies. How did these traditions get started? What is Halloween all about, anyway? Lucky for you, I’m here to clear these things up for you.
The Romans had an annual feast called the feast of Pomona. Pomona was the goddess of plenty. She was straight-up a Roman goddess, rather than being the Roman bastardization of a goddess borrowed from the Greeks. Associated with the flowering of trees, Pomona’s feast was celebrated November 1st – the time of the apple harvest in Rome.
The Romans had another festival, called Parentalia, where they’d honor their dead ancestors. Only thing is, it took place in February. The festival itself, however…It started on February 13th (the Ides, y’all) and a Vestal Virgin would sort of emcee the opening rites. The people would present offerings to the tomb of this dippy virgin from Roman Mythology who betrayed her city for accessories and got crushed to death. This represented a communal place for everybody to give props for their own ancestors. The rest of the festival would basically be all tame and family-like, until February 22 when they’d engage in the rites of Feralia, which happened at midnight (of course). The head of the family would directly address any bad spirits that were present. Ovid recorded a complicated ritual that was designed to purge or placate the evil spirits. The next day, they’d have a party the next day to celebrate that the family that was still alive was still alive, and that the dead family members weren’t out to hurt anyone.
So, the Celts had Samhain, which was the harvest festival. Probably the beginning of the year on the Celtic calendar, the Gaels considered this time to be a mystical time when the veil between worlds (our world and the otherworld) was the thinnest. That’s where the costumes started – the custom was to wear costumes and masks in order to trick the spirits into thinking they were one of them. People would also walk between bonfires to cleanse themselves of evil spirits. That’s also where the first Jack-O-Lanterns happened – the Gaels would hallow out turnips and carve faces into them to scare away the evil spirits.
Like many Pagan holidays, the Christians have a holiday around about the same time as Samhain. In Catholicism and some Anglican faiths, All Soul’s Day comes after All Saint’s Day. All Saint’s Day is celebrated November 1, while the morning and evening Lauds and Vespers of All Soul’s Day is observed November 2 (but the evening bits happen on November 3 if November 2 happens on a Sunday). The custom is actually borrowed from the Jewish faith – where praying for the dead has been in practice since Biblical times. In 837 Pope Gregory IV standardized the date of All Saint’s Day, which sort of stepped on Samhain, but that’s how it went back then.
The Feast of Samhain came over from Ireland along with Irish immigrants who were fleeing the horrible potato famine. All Saints and All Soul’s Day had Hallowmas, which happened right around the same time as Samhain. Eventually the secular fun of the celebration won out over the religious connotations, and people started celebrating Halloween as a family fun time with costumes, pumpkin carving, and scary stories and movies. For some, Halloween is still a religious holiday – some people still practice the older Celtic religions, and Halloween is a Sabbat in some Wiccan sects.
As for the celebration, it’s observed in Ireland (as a cultural event for those who aren’t practitioners of the pre-Christian Celtic religions), in Scotland (much like Ireland does it), England (as All Soul’s Eve), in Wales (as Nos Calan Gaeaf), in the Scandinavian Countries (as part of St. Martin’s Day), in Romania (as Halloween, but centered around the story of Dracula), in Switzerland (but not as much anymore – they see it as a US import and a pagan holiday), in Italy (though amidst controversy), in Denmark (as another excuse to go trick-or-treating), and in the US and Canada.