The Sacrificial Origins Of Halloween
Halloween is a holiday where children dress up in costume in exchange for their neighbors’ candy. It also offers adults an excuse to dress up and get shitfaced at themed parties (and even do pranks). But did you know that it was originally a day Celts believed spirits roamed the earth destroying their crops and livelihood? It’s true.
How did a ritual steeped in religion become a costume glorified costume party? I cover all of that (courtesy of information provided by History) and more below.
The celebration of Halloween traces back 2,000 year ago, when Celtics celebrated a festival known as Samhain (pronounced “sow-in,” somehow) in what’s now Ireland, the UK and northern France.
They celebrated this holiday on November 1, the day which marked the end of summer and beginning of winter, a day most of us dread today. This was a time commonly associated with death. On the night of October 31, it was believed that ghosts of the dead returned to Earth and would wreak havoc on their land, damaging crops. To commemorate the tradition, Druids (or priests) built huge bonfires, where people would gather in costume (typically animal skins) to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to these spirits.
By 43 A.D., the Romans had taken over most of the Celtic territory. And over the course of 400 years, Roman festivals were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. By the 9th century, Christianity had spread, where it gradually blended with and altered older Celtic worships.
In 1000 A.D., the church officially made November 2 “All Souls’ Day”, a day to honor the dead. It’s believed that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday.
This was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes, where, instead of animals, they donned costumes of saints, angels and devils. All Saints Day also went by the names: “All-hallows” or “All-hallowmas”. The night before (the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion) became known as “All-hallows Eve”.
As the beliefs and customs of different European groups and American Indians meshed, an American version of Halloween soon emerged. The first celebrations included public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead and dance.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was introduced to new immigrants who helped popularize the celebration of Halloween. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house-to-house asking for food or money, this would eventually become the “trick-or-treat” tradition, which dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England.
During the festivities, the less fortunate would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. At the time, this practice was referred to as “going a-souling” and was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money in return.
In the late 1800s, American officials attempted to mold Halloween into a holiday more about neighborly get-togethers than about getting the shit scared out of you. As such, at the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the more common way to celebrate with games, food and costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and the community to take anything scary out of Halloween celebrations. Trick-or-treating was no more. This is when Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones.
Between 1920 and 1950, trick-or-treating was revived. It was perceived as an inexpensive way for entire communities to share the Halloween celebration, this has become reflective of what’s currently practiced on Halloween. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on the holiday, which is one quarter of all candy sold annually in the U.S.