The origins of Halloween go back a long ways, long before the Catholic Church absorbed the Pagan holiday into their collection of feasts and celebrations.
In both Christian and Pagan traditions, the date of October 31st has always been associated with the transition from autumn to winter, where the harvest time of autumn gives way to the deathfulness of winter. During this time, the barriers that separate the world of the dead from the world of the living break down and the dead, at least for that night, now have access to the world of the living.
Some of these spirits are malicious, and enter into our world to terrify and harass the innocent. It is a dark and dangerous time as winter is approaching and with it comes the potential for death and despair, always omniscient and present like fetid swamp gas.
The origins of Halloween are reflected in the name, too. Halloween is a shortening of “All Hallows Evening” which is the first day of the Catholic Church’s threep-day celebration of Allhallowtide. These three days are dedicated to honoring the dead, saints (hallows), martyrs, and the recently departed souls who had not yet reached heaven.
Of course, once you start talking about saints and martyrs, you are often talking about people who died slow, painful, often times gruesome deaths, and were more than likely victims of the most horrific injustices. Their spirits, groaning and wailing in pain and agony, would wander the world in between that of the living and that of the dead, in hopes that the living would help them pass over and end their abject misery and suffering.
Harvest Festivals and the Origins of Halloween
Most historians agree about the origins of Halloween in that the a “Christianized” version of the numerous Pagan harvest festivals that had been around for thousands of years in many different cultures.
Halloween, or more properly All Hallows Eve became a Christian holiday in the year 609 AD.
The Pagan festivals were also celebrated to mark the transition from summer/autumn to winter and to honor the spirits of the dead, sometimes even to help lead them into the next world with as little stress and trauma as possible. There are two of these old festivals that scholars agree upon as possible origin points for Halloween as we know it.
The first of these is Samhain, a Celtic celebration of the harvest and “day of the dead/spirits” from October 31st to November 2nd that was prevalent in the northern part of England. It was believed that during these three days the doors to the Otherworld were open and so the spirits, faeries and souls of that world could now populate the world of the living.
During this time, huge bonfires were lit and people dressed up as demons, ghosts and faeries in an attempt to ward off the evil spirits that might migrate over from the other side. Offerings of food and drink were left at tables, doorways and even roadsides to help nourish the spirits of the recently departed and to help guide them into the Afterlife.
The other festival was a Roman ritual that was designed to rid one’s home of malicious and harmful spirits of the dead. The ritual was performed on May 9th, 11th and 13th and consisted of an incantation that was somewhat similar to an exorcism with offerings of beans meant to appease the spirits. According to Ovid, the ritual came about from Romulus’ attempts to appease the spirit of Remus.
This became Christianized into the feast of All Saints Days, with the date being moved to November 1st at some later date.
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