Halloween is perhaps the most understood day of the year next to Valentine’s Day. It’s riddled with misconceptions and folklore. But, unlike Valentine’s Day, Halloween has its roots in ancient religious practices. As you might suspect, the Roman Catholic Church has much to do with the mythology surrounding October 31; that is, the advent of Christianity. But, Halloween also owes much of its mystery to ancient Celtic beliefs.
The Celts were a diverse group of tribal societies who populated most of Europe for thousands of years. The Greeks encountered the Celts around the sixth century B.C. and called them Keltoi. When Julius Caesar encountered the Gauls (the early peoples of present-day France) around 58 B.C., he said they called themselves Celts. The word may have derived from the Indo-European ‘kel,’ which means ‘hidden.’ But, the term ‘Celt’ applies to any of the European peoples who spoke a Celtic language. Greeks and Romans depicted the Celts as barbarians, but archeology has proven they were a socially and technologically advanced people. They built complex settlements with sustainable farming practices and made significant breakthroughs in metalworking. They essentially created the Europe that exists today.
Like every society in the ancient world, the Celts lived in accordance with the weather and the seasons. Their calendar began on what now corresponds to November 1, which marked the start of winter. They had to move their cattle and sheep to closer pastures and secure all animals for the cold months ahead. They also harvested and stored their crops, again before winter’s arrival. The Celts divided the year into four major holidays, and on what now roughly corresponds to October 31, they celebrated a festival called “Samhain,” pronounced ‘sah-ween.’ Since October 31 was technically their New Year’s Eve, the Celts believed the spirits of the dead would mingle with the living as part of the overall life cycle. During Samhain, the Celts celebrated that the souls of all those who had died throughout the year would pass into the next world. They feasted upon meats, fruits and vegetables and lit bonfires to help the deceased on their journeys. Some Celts wore masks to ward off any evil spirits that tried to disrupt the celebrations or stop dead loved ones from moving onward.
Then, as Christianity began to spread across Europe, Celtic traditions came under attack. Early Christian leaders denounced holidays like Samhain as pagan and even demonic. While they succeeded in altering the ideological landscape of Europe, Christians didn’t completely eliminate Celtic rituals; the latter just changed their practices. In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory I issued an edict to his missionaries concerning the beliefs and customs of the Celts. Rather than try to obliterate Celtic rituals, Gregory instructed his missionaries to incorporate them. If the residents of a town or village worshipped a tree, for example, the missionaries wouldn’t cut it down; instead, they would consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.
But, as the Roman Catholic Church increased its power, all non-Christian beliefs and practices were declared malevolent. The Celtic spirit world became associated with the Christian “Hell.” Any remaining practitioners of Celtic ideology were forced into hiding and were branded as witches.
Sometime in the 4th century A.D., the Catholic Church designated November 1 as “All Saints Day.” It honored every Christian saint, especially those who did not have a special day devoted to them. It was meant to substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion of the Celtic peoples, and ultimately to replace it. That did not happen, of course, but the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status, becoming fairies or leprechauns of more recent traditions. Once again, though, Christianity didn’t triumph completely as its esteemed leaders had hoped.
In the 9th century, the Church designated November 2 as “All Souls Day,” when the living prayed for the souls of the dead. Christians also referred to All Souls Day as “All Hallows” – hallow means sanctified or holy. The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. As the centuries progressed, people continued celebrating All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but they gradually came to associate supernatural beings with evil. Any soul that hadn’t moved into Heaven was deemed unholy – and so was any celebration of those souls.
Celtic traditions are now most closely associated with the British Isles. That’s mainly because the peoples of those islands – separate from the European mainland – were the last holdouts against Christianity. Even after the time of St. Patrick, many Irish refused to convert to Catholicism, which is ironic considering that Ireland is now predominantly and staunchly Roman Catholic.
Most contemporary Halloween traditions can be traced to Samhain. The wearing of costumes, for instance, and roaming from door to door demanding treats correlates to the Celtic belief that the souls of the dead wandered around, along with more malevolent spirits. The Celts made offerings of food and beverages to placate all of them. As Christianity became more entrenched in European society, people began dressing up like witches and demons and performing antics in exchange for food and beverages. This practice is called “mumming,” from which trick-or-treating evolved. The term ‘mumming’ is derived from either the German word ‘mumme,’ which means mask or masking, or the Greek word ‘mommo,’ which basically means a frightening mask. Even now, in many small towns in England and Ireland, people stage ‘mumming plays.’
There is no evil in celebrations honoring the dead. Christianity is what made that connection. Every society across the globe honors its deceased loved ones. It’s done out of respect and admiration. Most Indigenous Americans, for example, conducted similar rituals, which – as early Christians tried to do with the Celts – Catholic missionaries worked to eliminate. But, as with the Celts, some Indians merely incorporated Roman Catholic practices into their religion as a means of survival. There were some holdouts, though, who refused to convert and often suffered the bloody consequences. Even now, México celebrates “El Dio de los Muertos,” or “Day of the Dead,” which is a modernized version of indigenous Indian rituals that literally go back thousands of years. People build temporary alters to honor their deceased relatives and friends, which includes offerings of food and beverages.
That’s not evil – that’s love.
BLESS, O GOD, THE DWELLING
Bless, O God, the dwelling,
And each who rests herein this night;
Bless, O God, my dear ones,
In every place wherein they sleep;
In the night that is tonight,
And every single night;
In the day that is today,
And every single day.