Since Halloween is tomorrow, we thought we’d share a little bit of the popular holiday’s history. The timing of Halloween is no coincidence. The ancient, pre-Roman Celts of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Northern France used to believe that during this time of year, the boundary between the living and the dead was very blurry. This coincided with the fact that the harvest season was coming to a close, leaves were falling from the trees, and green was turning to brown. Winter was associated with death not only because of the lack of agriculture but also because many human deaths occurred during this cold season. For these ancient Celtic cultures, the beginning of the year was November 1st so they celebrated with a pagan festival called Samhain (pronounced sau-in). On the night before this day, October 31st, it was believed that ghosts of the dead roamed the land, damaging crops and wreaking havoc (History.com).
To appease these spirits, the Celts would make bonfires to keep themselves warm and to sacrifice animals and crops. They would also leave food and wine out for them and would wear masks when they went out in order to blend in with the ghosts. Likely it was from this practice that the tradition of dressing up in costumes came. The practice of trick-or-treating, when little kids go around their neighborhood to ask for candy, is linked back to “souling” and “guising”. “Souling” was when poor people in the British Isles used to beg for food on All Souls’ Day, November 2nd. Beggars would receive pastries called “soul cakes” and in exchange they would pray for the benefactors’ dead ancestors. “Guising” was a lot like modern trick-or-treating except that children would perform songs, poetry, and jokes. All Souls’ Day followed All Saints’ Day or All Hallows of November 1st. This was the holiday that the Roman Catholic Church created to replace Samhain. The night before November 1st became All Hallows’ Eve, from which the word “Halloween” arose.
A lot of the traditions mentioned above were revived by Scottish and Irish immigrants who came to the United States in the 1800s. However, trick-or-treating and Halloween didn’t become the family and children-friendly traditions we know today until the 1950s when the candy sharing part of the festivities mostly replaced the pranks or “trick” portion of the holiday (For more info, check out this fun video).
The ancient Celts and current day Americans aren’t the only ones who celebrate festivities centered around a blurred line between the living and the dead. Many people have heard of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, based on the same Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day mentioned above, but have you heard of Pchum Ben in Cambodia or the Hungry Ghost Festival in China? As the name of the second festival suggests, both of these festivals include offering food and drinks to the spirits of the dead who are supposedly wandering among the living. The Japanese celebrate a Buddhist festival called Obon that similarly pays tributes to the spirits of ancestors. Like the ancient Celts, participants in Obon light bonfires. These bonfires are believed to guide the spirits back to the world of the dead. If you would like to read more about these festivals and others, visit the Smithsonian website.
It is clear that despite our rich cultural diversity, humans share a lot of beliefs about the living and the dead. The human experience is complicated and multi-layered but it overlaps in many places. The boundaries we create between different types of people is not always as distinct as we sometimes think. Nor, as these festivals show, are the boundaries between physical and spiritual. Many of these holidays celebrating the dead are also about giving back to the living and coming together as a community. Let’s remember that this Halloween and share some smiles as we share candy. Generosity and giving are an important part of almost every holiday and this one is no exception.
Have a fun and safe weekend! Happy Halloween!