an Ancient Celebration
by Michael Russell
One night, in neighborhoods across
America, you will find monsters, ghosts, witches and other characters haunting
houses up and down the street. October 31, Halloween, is one of the more
popular holidays for children. What child wouldn't want to dress up as a
monster or fairy and score a bag of candy in the process?
of Halloween are ancient. 2,000 years ago in the part of the United Kingdom
which is now Ireland, the Celts celebrated the beginning of their new year on
November 1. As a result, October 31, or Samhain as the Celts called it, was a
night to celebrate. The Celts believed that on that one night each year, the
wall between the worlds of the living and the dead were easier to cross over
and the barrier was thinner. Because of this, they believed that the spirits of
the dead returned to the world of the living and caused all sorts of trouble
and damage. Since the spirits were present on earth, the Celts believed that
their priests, the Druids, were able to make predictions about the future more
Since this celebration was an end to the summer and a beginning
to the long, dark, cold, winter the people were hopeful if the Druids were able
to make positive predictions for the hard time ahead. After the Romans
conquered the British Isles, the Celtic celebration of Samhain was combined
with a couple of Roman holidays. Feralia was a day that the Romans honored
their dead in late October. The other holiday was in honor of Pomona, the Roman
goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona was associated especially with the apple and
because of this, the tradition of bobbing for apples may be associated with
Pomona after her holiday was lumped in with Samhain and Feralia.
the spread of Christianity, Halloween was incorporated into a new holiday, All
Saints' Day, which was a day to honor saints and martyrs on November 1. This
holiday was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (which is derived from the
Middle English word Alholowmesse, another way to say All Saints' Day). The
night before this holiday, October 31, began to be known as All-Hallows Eve and
soon, just Halloween. Some time later, the church decreed that November 2 would
be known as All Souls Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated much like
Samhain, with bonfires, dancing, parades and dressing up in costumes. Together,
the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints' and All Souls',
were collectively called Hallowmas.
The way we celebrate Halloween in
America, trick-or-treating, is probably related to the All Souls' Day parades
in early England. At this time, the poor would beg for food. They would be
given "soul cakes" in return for praying for the family's dead relatives.
Eventually, this turned into children visiting neighborhood houses and being
given treats such as beer, food and money.
With the new flood of
immigrants in the late 1800s, the millions of Irish entering the US helped
shape the celebration of Halloween. From Irish and English traditions,
Americans began dressing up in costumes and going house to house asking for
food or money. By the end of the 19th century, many people began to try to mold
Halloween into a holiday that was more about the community and community
celebrations than about spirits, pranks or witchcraft. Parents were encouraged
to make the parties for their children and families less frightening and
attempt to take out the fearful aspects of Halloween.
is the second biggest commercial holiday in America. Americans spend billions
of dollars on candy, costumes and parties. Children look forward to Halloween
every year, partly because they are able to dress up and be a different person
or being for a night, but mostly because of the loot they receive from going
door to door in their neighborhood.
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