Origins of Halloween
The autumn festival has been a feature of human society since earliest times, primarily because it signaled the end of the growing season and the start of the difficult period of winter.
Deaths were frequent during early times, and finding ways to deal with the psychological stress of the upcoming desolation led to the adoption of death symbols and rituals as a method to overcome fears.
Samhain (pronounced "sah-win")
Samhain is mentioned in some of the very earliest Irish literature. This festival first started in England, during the time of the Celtic and Germanic tribes. The Celtic pagans, known as the Druids, believed that the souls of those who died the previous winter roamed the earth during this time of year, thus triggering dressing in costumes of frightening figures to ward off the attention of the dead.
The Romans conquered Celtic lands around 43 A.D. They brought the Roman festival of "Feralia," a commemoration of the dead, to the region, as well a celebration to "Pomona," the goddess of fruit and trees. These holidays combined with the previous pagan celebration. The traditional "bobbing for apples" may have come from traditions honoring this Roman goddess.
Christian Influence on Halloween
As the Catholic Church spread its influence to many areas of the world, it often incorporated the native traditions into its own holidays and rituals. November 1st brought the religious holiday of All Saint's Day, but in order to fit in with already established traditions in northern Europe, the Church chose to celebrate the day before this holiday and called it All Soul's Day, to honor all those who had previously died. The ancient Samhain traditions blended easily with the new holiday and helped to solidify the Church's influence in these countries.
American Influence and Halloween Symbols
Halloween was brought to America by the early settlers who came from a variety of different countries. It became much more secularized during this transference, and today is primarily a consumer festival with many costumes and treats being sold and a variety of different community events. All of the Halloween symbols we know relate to the original purpose of this unique autumn festival:
Witches and Jack-o'-Lanterns
Traditionally the autumn festival featured reading of omens about the future and who would die during the winter. Witches were thought to be the most knowledgeable about these readings. The Jack-o-Lantern mythology came from a story about a man who cheated the devil and was forced to roam the earth throughout eternity. In kindness, he was given a glowing coal to light his way, which he carried in a hollowed out turnip.
Halloween Ghosts and Devils
The ghost imagery relates to the spirits of the dead that were thought to roam the earth in the autumn, when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was thinnest.
The depiction of devil's related to the mythology of the dead stealing souls to bring back to the netherworld.
Bonfires and Skeletons
Bonfires have been a feature of Halloween from early time when the remains, such as husks and leaves, from crops that had been stored away for winter were burned in the fields to scare away evil spirits.
These are a reference to death and scaring away the dangers of the coming winter. Though in the UK we normally associate bonfires with Guy Fawkes Night and November the 5th.
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