Where Halloween really comes from

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Girl in witch costume
Knowing the real history behind Halloween takes some of the scare out for parents of young children who might be alarmed by the seemingly evil nature of the holiday
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The scariest night of the year didn't start off that way.

Halloween is one of this country's most popular holidays but not everyone knows its real origins. It is commonly believed to be associated with some sort of Pagan ritual but the average Halloween reveller probably doesn't know for sure, or doesn't know any details.


This has led to a certain degree of concern amongst parents who are alarmed by the scary and seemingly 'evil' aspects of the celebration. Learning the history of Halloween is interesting and can help dispel fears by clarifying the holiday's origins.


Celtic Beginnings

Halloween began as a festival called Samhain and was celebrated in ancient Ireland. For the Celts, the day marked the end of the harvest and the transition from autumn into winter. In those days surival was often a struggle and the winter season was unfortunately associated with death. 


From this stemmed the superstition that on the last day of October, the line between this world and the afterlife was blurred. They believed that the spirits of the dead visited Earth during this time. 


Although this explains the supernatural elements of the holiday, for the ancient Celts it had a more practical meaning; namely, a risk to their crops. They took the opportunity to try to appease their deities by offering crops and livestock. They would also attempt to make predictions about the coming season. For them these attempts at fortune-telling served as a way of finding comfort and guidance in the difficult winter. Costumes and bonfires played an important role in these rituals.


Irish and Roman Traditions

Later in history, the Celts were conquered by the Romans and over the course of several hundred years, the traditions of the two peoples blurred together. Two different Roman celebrations were incorporated into Samhain. One was a commemoration of the dead known as Feralia and the other a day in honor of a Roman goddess of fruits and trees called Pomona. The goddess was symbolized by the apple, an image that may have led to the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples. 



Obviously these two festivals had close parallels to the two functions of Samhain so it was logical that the three would be incorporated into a single celebration as the two cultures became increasingly intermingled.  For the developing hybrid culture, the end of October became a general opportunity to celebrate the harvest and honor the dead.


How Christianity Helped Shape Halloween

As more time passed, Christianity spread and the Roman and Celtic traditions were absorbed into similar Christian celebrations. The first such celebration was All Saints Day which was created to honor Christian martyrs and saints. It was celebrated the same night as Samhain and contained some of the same ideas. 


As time went on, it came to be known as All Hallows Eve. The Church later created a holiday known as All Souls Day in honor of the dead, which incorporated parades, bonfires and costumes. Samhain, All Saints Day and All Souls Day were eventually mixed together into one big celebration known as Hallowmas. Through gradual linguistic developments and mutations, the word gradually morphed into Halloween.

By exploring the history of Halloween we can see that there is nothing evil or nefarious about the holiday. It is primarily rooted in festivals celebrating the harvest and honoring the dead and a large part of its history stems from the development of Christianity. 


Our Modern Celebration has Ancient Roots


In an odd way the modern incarnation of the holiday shares a common theme with its original form. It is simply about facing our fear of death and the unknown, albeit in a fun way. By dressing up as assorted ghouls, ghosts and monsters we embody the things that frighten us and effectively make them less frightening. This is similiar to the ancient Celts who held their festival to help deal with the hardships of winter. 


Of course the main thing to do when Halloween rolls around is enjoy the spooky costumes and delicious candy but it's interesting to keep this historical context in mind.

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