From whence it all began
The end of October looms, not far in the distant future, and the search for the (other) world’s most haunting Halloween decorations is on! As we charge on into the art and craft of making our spooktacular spectacles and fabulous frights, let’s take a moment to remember how all these ghosts and skeletons came to have their own special day.
Halloween is perhaps one of the oldest holidays on record, dating back more than 2,000 years to the days of the Celts and their high priests, the Druids. While largely associated with the place that is now known as Ireland, the Celtic people lived across a wide region that included Great Britain and northern France, and marked their new year on November 1st. This was the end of summer and a time of harvest, as the Celts began to prepare for the cold, dark winter. For many, this time of year was marked by a period of death.
According to Celtic legend, the line separating the living and the dead became blurred on the eve of the new year: October 31st. On this night, the Celts celebrated Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) and believed that the spirits of the dead rose again. Besides causing mischief and wrecking crops, the ghosts helped the Druids (Celtic priests) see into the future – something very important to an agrarian culture dependent on the earth and the weather. These prophecies gave comfort to the Celtic people as they bedded down to ride out the bleak winter. To properly celebrate Samhain, the Druids lit large bonfires, burned crops, and offered animal sacrifices to the gods while villagers dressed in costumes made of animal skins and heads.
By 43 A.D. the Romans had arrived, conquering much of the Celtic lands, and Samhain was integrated with two Roman festivals: one commemorating the dead and a second paying homage to the goddess of fruit and trees. It is thought that this is where the tradition of ‘bobbing for apples’ began.
Several hundred years later, during the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church modified the holiday again, converting November 1st into a day to honor the saints – All Saints Day – and establishing the day after, November 2nd, as All Souls Day, a day to honor the dead. From here we draw the term All-Hallows, and of course, the night before it, All-Hallows Eve, formerly known as Samhain, eventually to become Halloween. And, as many people continued to remember the earlier Celtic customs, October 31st retained many of the elements of Samhain.
During the mid- to late-1800s and early 1900s, America was flooded with new immigrants, and the incoming European settlers brought their customs and Halloween costumes with them. As these immigrants became Americans, they began to share their cultural experiences and merged their various traditions. Neighbors started dressing up and hosting parties to tell ghost stories and tales of mischief. By the 1950s, Americans had settled into the version of Halloween as we know it today: a mix of trick-or-treating, scary tales, costumes, and merriment.
Keep the celebration alive and create your own Halloween traditions: plan a neighborhood party, add some haunting details to your home decor and don the most fabulous Halloween costumes and accessories. The edge of darkness is near, so it’s time to get into the spirit of things. Happy Halloween!