Holiday History: Origins Of Halloween

The customs associated with Halloween have origins with the beliefs of the druids, the Celtic priests of ancient Gaul and Britain.

It is the spookiest day of the year - Halloween. Each year, most areas of North America and sections of Western Europe celebrate Halloween on the evening of October. 31. Symbolically, the holiday is associated with the haunted domain of the supernatural, death and other spooky demons. However, Halloween has roots that trace all the way back to the ancient cultures. Some of the customs we commonly associate with the holiday, such as Jack-O-Lanterns and bobbing for apples, can be traced back in time to the ancient Romans and Celtic cultures of Eastern and Western Europe.

Primarily, the customs associated with Halloween have been derived from the beliefs of the druids, the Celtic priests of ancient Gaul and Britain. Many of the ancient peoples in Western Europe would celebrate the end of the harvest season with a holiday in late autumn. The most important of these holidays to later influence Halloween customs was the Samhain, which was celebrated by the Celts of Western and Central Europe in the first millennium BC. The Samhain, which occurred on October 31, also marked the beginning of a new year in the ancient Celtic calendar. According to Celtic pagan religion, the druids believed that witches, demons, and spirits roamed the earth on the eve of November 1, which is known as All Saints' Day - a holy day in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. The holiday honors Christian saints and was established by the Catholic Church in the 9th century. The ancient druids used to lite bon fires to ward off evil spirits. In order to protect themselves from the devilish tricks of the evil spirits, the druids would appease the spirits by offering them treats. The druids would also disguise themselves in costumes so the spirits would think that the druids belonged to their own company. This is where the custom of wearing costumes on Halloween, as well as trick-or-treating originated.

When the Romans conquered and later incorporated the Celtic lands into the Roman Empire in the first century AD, the Romans adopted many Celtic traditions, including their religious observances. In Britain, the Romans blended the local Samhain customs with their own pagan harvest festival honoring the goddess of fruit trees, leading some to believe that the game of bobbing for apples derives from the blending these two customs.

As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the customs associated with Samhain. In fact, the holiday was only abandoned in the Middle Ages, when people began converting to Christianity. In fact, Pope Gregory IV sought to replace the pagan-like Samhain with the religious custom of All Saints' Day, followed by All Souls' Day, on Nov.2. All Souls' Day celebrates purifying the spirit of the dead, which is more similar to Halloween. This holiday, which rapidly became popular in France, as well as many of the Samhain customs spread rapidly throughout Europe.

Originally, Halloween was commonly celebrated as a religious holiday meant to scare evil spirits away. People used to dress up as goblins, witches, and ghosts in order to celebrate All Saints' Day without a visit from the evil spirits.

In the United States, the first instance of a Halloween celebration was recorded in Anoka, Minnesota in 1921. New York began celebrating the holiday in 1923 and Los Angeles caught on in 1925.

Other customs associated with Halloween that can be traced back in time include the Jack-O-Lantern. Irish children used to carve out potatoes or turnips and light them for their Halloween gatherings. The commemorated Jack was an wicked Irish villain unwanted by either heaven or hell. Jack wondered the world endlessly looking for a place to rest. Once in America, the Irish began to use pumpkins to celebrate Halloween with a Jack-O-Lantern because pumpkins were easier to carve and could be found in abundance.

The autumn leaves, cornstalks, apples and nuts which are associated with the Halloween season are reminders of the druid's autumn festival in honor of the harvest.

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