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Halloween History

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A lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about Halloween: they think it’s the Devil’s birthday, or a Holiday created by the candy companies, but how many people know it’s a celebration dating back to before Christianity?

Halloween started as a Celtic celebration called Samhain. The Celts used to celebrate their New Year on Nov. 1, which marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the cold, dark winter during which many people died.

“Because of this, at the time when everything is ‘dying’, the spirits of the dead can freely walk our world,” said Christopher Mohr, a Wiccan man who still celebrates Samhain.

However, the Celts also believed that the presence of the dead allowed for Druids, Celtic priests, to see into the future and make predictions for the coming future. On that day, Oct. 31, Druids commemorated the event with sacred bonfires where people came to burn their crops and animals as sacrifices for their gods. This usually took place at night and in costume.

“The scaring of spirits is where the costumes came about,” Mohr’s wife, Nikki, said.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled over the Celtic lands, which is now Ireland, two Roman celebrations were merged with Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally honored the dead and their passing. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and the incorporation of this into Samhain probably explains where “bobbing for apples” originated.

On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the day to honor all Christian martyrs called All Martyrs Day. Pope Gregory III later expanded this to include all saints as well as martyrs and moved the celebration from May 13 to Nov 1. By the 9th century, Christianity had reached Celtic lands and the celebrations began mixing. In 1000 A.D., the Church would sanction Nov 2 as All Souls Day to honor the dead, likely trying to completely replace Celtic celebrations entirely. All Souls Day was similar to Samhain in that they shared the bonfires, parades, and costumes. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints Day), which eventually became Halloween.

There was still some action to be taken before it was to become the Halloween we all know today. By the time it reached America, Halloween wasn’t really “Halloween” but the celebrations of the Native Americans bleeding over to the colonists. It was limited in the New England colony because of strict Protestant beliefs. It was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. Neighbors would tell ghost stories, tell each other’s fortunes, sing, dance, and begin mischief-making. By the middle of the nineteenth century, autumn festivals were more common, but these weren’t boosted until Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine of 1846 began flooding the colonies, taking Halloween with them. Incorporating Irish and English traditions, Americans began donning costumes and going from door to door asking for food or money, spawning Trick or Treating.

So whether you’re Trick or Treating, smashing pumpkins, or just sitting at home with a good book or a favorite show, take some time to reflect on the rich and long history of Halloween.

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