Halloween and horror literature are forever linked in American culture. But how did Halloween originate and how did it come to be a time to celebrate the worst nightmares from our scariest tales?
Not everyone agrees that Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festivities of Samhain. But many do despite how different our holiday looks from pagan holidays of yesterday. For the Celts, Samhain marked the beginning of the harshest season to come - winter. The Celts were mostly a rural people living throughout Europe who kept herds of cattle and sheep. The change of season into winter brought the slaughter of animals as they thinned the herds and prepared meat for the winter months ahead. They also had their autumn harvest of fruits and nuts to bring plenty of reason to celebrate and join together as a community.
The Celts believed in different netherworlds and that it was possible for the spirits of the dead to return to the earth. The role of the Druids in Celtic society was that of the educated priests, judges, and leaders. The Druids performed rituals to communicate with the dead and perhaps bless their people with good fortune during the long, cold winters. The beginning of winter was believed to contain the thinnest passageway between the living and the dead. It was during the festivals of Samhain that many of these early people believed ghosts and demons could more easily pass into the world of the living.
There were dangerous and mischievous spirits believed to be in the netherworld. Animals and foods were sacrificed to gain favor with these beings. But the Celts also believed the Samhain was a good time to communicate with their lost loved ones and family members. People would leave gifts of food as an invitation to the dead to visit and join the festivities. It was an exciting time with large community bonfires featuring sacrificial animals and gifts of food to the dead.
During the festivities, people often wore costumes of animal heads and furs to either disguise themselves from or to blend in with the demons. They would commonly tell prophecies of the future most likely as the verbal Farmer's Almanac of the time. At the end of the night, each family would light their hearth from the community bonfires and keep that same fire going all year for good luck.
The horror of these ceremonies arrived with the Catholic influence on these communities. Christians believed the world of spirits to be Hell and everything involved with them to be of demons and the devil. Druids once seen as scholars to their people became worshippers of the devil. Catholic priest and missionaries were encouraged to subvert local pagan traditions into a new Christian holiday. One such formation was All Souls Day on Nov 2. This was a day dedicated to remembering loved ones as the Celts had always done at the Samhain celebrations.
The day before All Souls day is All Saints Day dedicated to remembering all of the saints, both the known and the forgotten. And the day before that is, as you may have guessed or known, All Hallows Eve, or as we know it - Halloween. Like Samhain, it is a time for prayer, reflection, and remembrance of the dead. It is simply the differing ideas of who or what belongs to the realms of the netherworld that have made the current tradition of Halloween into a symbol of horror for so many over the years.
There is so much more to Halloween than just the earliest beginnings. Every decade brings changes to the traditions for various reasons. And the holiday is spreading to many other countries. Just as the popularity of a good ghost story tends to spread, so does a good celebration of life. And today’s Halloween does celebrate life with a good-hearted, fun-filled American tradition meant to keep those mischievous spirits away.