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Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Origin of Halloween

Today is Halloween and the rounding up of the month of horror. In 2011 the National Retail Federation in the United States found that people spent around $6.86 billion, equating to $72 per person, on Halloween. Why is Halloween celebrated though? Today we will look at its origins.

One of the generally accepted origins for the modern day Halloween lies with the Gaelic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sah-in or sow-in). This holiday was celebrated throughout Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland although similar holidays took place in Cornwall (the Kalan Gwav), Wales (the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf) and in Brittany (the Kalan Goañv). From the sunset of October 31st to the sunset of November 31st sacred bonfires were lit and druids would burn crops and offer animals as sacrifice. The origin of Samhain had a mixture of practical and spiritual purpose. One of the key sites is the Mound of the Hostages at the Hill of Tara, Ireland, which aligns with the changing moon. Not only does this suggest that the Gaelic people operated a calendar based on the moon like modern calendars but, also serves in a practical way with them bringing in cattle and crops before the colder winter months. During Samhain it was believed that the boundaries of the living and the dead became intertwined so to stop the spirits from hurting people during the winter through famine and the cold cattle and crops were offered to them. Feasts were held so the souls of dead kin could join their families in merriment, divination games involving apples were held and people would dress up and visit their neighbors asking for food. The origin of the last tradition is thought to be down to hiding your identity from the Aos Sí (spirits). In some areas turnips were carved into grotesque faces and hollowed out to ward off the Aos Sí. 

Christian and Roman merging
By 43 A.D. the Romans had conquered much of Celtic and Gaelic lands in Europe. They in turn had their own celebration in late October to celebrate the dead, Feralia, and the day after they honored the goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona, whose symbol was an apple. Due to the similarities Roman occupiers and native Gaelic peoples would celebrate their holidays together. In May 609 A.D. Pope Boniface VI created All Martyrs Day to honor martyred Christians and just over a century later Pope Gregory III expanded it to include saints as well and moved its celebration to November 1st. It also brought a name change: All Hallowed Day. The night before became known as All Hallows Eve. Quite often early Christianity would adopt traditions and dates of local festivals (a notable example is Christmas being celebrated on December 25th to coincide with a non-Christian holiday). This can be seen happening with Samhain and All Hallows Day. Over the years Christians increasingly celebrated All Hallows Day, now called Halloween, although in Scotland and England following the creation of Guy Fawkes Day (celebrating a foiled plot to assassinate King James VI and I) it was celebrated less except for in the Gaelic areas in Scotland. In Mexico during the 16th century La Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) was moved from being in the late summer to October 31st in order to coincide with Halloween. Incidentally the Day of the Dead's origin can be traced to pre-Columbian traditions used by a variety of cultures dating from 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. 

Modern Halloween
Many of the traditions in Halloween today can be traced directly to the original holiday of Samhain. The carving of jack-o-lanterns originated from carving grotesque faces into turnips to create lanterns as a ward against harmful spirits. Trick-or-treating originated from the custom of dressing up and visiting your neighbors for food while simultaneously protecting your identity from harmful spirits. Even bobbing for apples originated from the Roman-Gaelic influence of the festival celebrating Pomona. However, Halloween became so entrenched in society thanks to the United States. In the second half of the 1800s the United States saw a rise in immigration, particularly from Ireland where between 1 million and 1 and a half million left Ireland thanks to the Potato Famine. In Ireland the celebration of Halloween had continued where in the rest of the British Isles it had largely become redundant with Guy Fawkes Day replacing it as the major celebration. Thanks to this Halloween was introduced to large sections of American societies and was quickly adopted by communities to help create a closer community. By the late 1800s calls to tone down the more grotesque and frightening aspects of celebrations had an inadvertent effect by removing most of its superstitious and religious overtones, thus its appeal broadly increased. By the 20th Century Halloween had become a national holiday and especially following the Baby Boom of the 1950s its popularity increased dramatically. Thanks to the USA having a great impact on world culture thanks to the importation of American media following the 1950s the celebration of Halloween saw a resurgence in Ireland and the UK with its adoption as well in other countries which previously had not celebrated the holiday such as Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. In the Philippines it has even merged with celebrating the Day of the Dead! However, Samhain has also seen a resurgence. Many people now celebrate or honor Samhain each year with festivals and games being played to honor the festival commemorating the new year.

I hope you enjoyed reading. For more information please follow this link: It gives a lot of extra interesting information which I have not mentioned in this post. Next week I'll be doing an alternate history scenario so in the meantime I hope you have a nice Halloween, Day of the Dead or Samhain! 

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