The Religious Roots of the Festival of Halloween
The Religious Roots of the Festival of Halloween
Halloween is an extremely enjoyable festival that occurs every year on October 31st. It is mostly celebrated in the United States and Britain and my talk today is associated with the British version of this holiday. Today many people see Halloween as a pleasurable holiday, for both adults and children. The celebrations of the ancient Celts are still evident in modern festivities as you can see from the old traditions still practiced today. October 31st today is a time for dressing up, eating sweets, scaring both ourselves and each other and holding parties. Many people consider it to be their favourite holiday of the year.
Modern Halloween is all about dressing children in their favourite costumes, walking from house to house, collecting sweets and treats. Many families also decorate their homes and gardens with cobwebs, skeletons and jack-o-lanterns. However, the true origins of Halloween have become almost unrecognisable in today’s celebrations, although they do include many traditions that I will outline.
·Costuming – The Celts wore these to ward of evil entities that were believed to be roaming the earth on that night. They could also be worn in some ceremonies as a symbol of becoming closer to their Gods. Later, when the festival turned to the Christian All Hallow’s Eve, people were still extremely superstitious and continued to disguise themselves by dressing in costume to confuse the spirits. Today, costumes of modern themes are worn on Halloween by children going trick or treating and by adults seeking fun and amusement. Many parties that are held in honor of this festival are themed and ask for the guests to dress in costume.
·Trick Or Treating – Our modern custom of trick or treating may have originated from several similar old customs. I will just concentrate on one of these, a ninth-century European custom called ‘souling’. Children would walk from village to village begging for ‘soul cakes’, made out of square pieces of bread with currants. For every cake that a child collected, he or she would have to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for some time and that a prayer, even said by a stranger, could send the soul to heaven. Today, children walk from house to house asking for sweets, but not in exchange for prayers.
·Bobbing For Apples – In Celtic tradition, apples were associated with female deities who controlled the ways of love and fertility. This may have had something to do with the pentagram (a star with five points) shape that you see when you slice an apple in half. The pentagram was an important shape for the Celts and it was largely recognised as a Goddess symbol. The pentagram today is still used in fortune telling and spell casting. The apples were used by the Celts in fortune telling in two main ways. The first is where we got the modern tradition of apple bobbing from. It was for young unmarried people, who would try to bite into an apple floating in water. The first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to marry. Peeling an apple was also a way to predict your life expectancy. If you cut off one long peel, you would live to an old age. If you only cut off a small peel, you would die young. Apples are still a big part of Halloween celebrations. In addition to apple bobbing, people also drink apple cider, make candy apples and hand out apples to trick or treaters.
·Pumpkin Carving or Jack-O-Lanterns – Although the Celts would bring home and ember from the communal bonfire in a hollowed out turnip, the direct tradition of jack-o-lanterns dates from 18th century Ireland. As told in a very popular Irish folk tale, the originator of the modern Jack-O-Lantern was a character named Stingy Jack. The story goes that that he convinced Satan to climb up a tree for some apples, and then cut crosses all around the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb down. The devil promised to leave Stingy Jack alone forever, if he would let him down out of the tree. When Jack eventually died, he was turned away from heaven, due to his trickery and life of sin.
But, in keeping with their agreement, the devil wouldn’t take Jack either. He was cursed to travel forever as a spirit in limbo. As Jack left the gates of hell, the devil threw him a hot ember to light the way in the dark. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip, and wandered off into the world. Folk Tradition held that they would ward off Stingy Jack and Other Spirits on Halloween, and they also served as representations of the souls of the dead. Later, when Halloween festivals were brought to America by the Irish, turnips were replaced with pumpkins which where much more plentiful and easier to carve. People began to cut frightening faces and other designs into their Jack-O-Lanterns, as they still do today.
The festivities of modern Halloween are thought to be a combining of two separate celebrations. The first is a pre-Christian Celtic feast associated with the Celtic New Year. The second is the Christian celebration of All Saints Day (November 1st). The Celtic Feast of the New Year was celebrated on what would be November 1st on our calendar. This festival was known as All Hallowtide and was held to celebrate the New Year and would also signalize the close of the Harvest and the initiation of winter. But this Celtic festival was also a celebration to commemorate Samhain, the Feast Of The Dead.
It was known as the Feast of The Dead because the Celts believed that on the last day of the year, (October 31st) the souls of the dead could return to their family’s homes. It was believed that evil spirits, demons, ghosts and witches were also free to roam around on this night and could be mollified with a feast. These frightening creatures would also leave you alone if you dressed like them and thus appeared to be one of them.
The Christian Feast of All Saints transpired as a result of the many martyrs who died for their faith in Jesus Christ due to the persecutions of the Roman State against the Church. The most renowned of these were honored locally by the preservation of their relics and by the celebration of the anniversary of their death, as a feast in honor of their birth into eternal life. At the end of the third century the martyrs became so many that in some places it was impossible to commemorate even the most significant of them. The need for a common feast of all martyrs was becoming evident. Beginning with Gregory III the celebration of a feast of All Saints was commemorated at St. Peters on November 1st.
Halloween today is widely regarded as one of the most enjoyable ( if not frightening) festivals of the year.