Have you ever wondered how your ancestors celebrated Halloween? It’s such an odd holiday compared to the rest of them, it seems. While other holidays, such as the Fourth of July and Christmas, seem to involve bright lights and joyous celebrations, Halloween is commemorated each year with fake spiderwebs, witch hats, and scary Jack O Lanterns. It is a holiday that celebrates all things dark, and yet, people everywhere love it! When you think about it… it is a bit strange.
Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve as it was called in olden times, has a history that dates back to ancient European origins. Many of us have heard bits and pieces of Halloween’s history, but few of us can really comprehend our own ancestors taking part in some of these rituals. However, we know that they did. Here is how.
As with many American holidays, Halloween has European origins. The Celts- the ancestors of the Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh- celebrated the pre-Christian pagan festival of Samhain. There have been discoveries of Neolithic tombs in Ireland that align with the sunrise around the time of Samhain, which shows that the holiday may have ancient significance dating back to prehistoric times.The ritual involves lighting bonfires, which were believed to have cleansing powers. It was a time believed to be a conduit between the Spirit realm and the earthly. Even our Stone Age ancestors believed in an afterlife and mourned their dead.
Of course the Welsh had a say in the history of Halloween, obviously. With their passion, music, and culture, how could they not? If carrying around a decapitated horse head and singing carols was their idea of a Merry Christmas, one can only imagine what Halloween was like.
Masks and costumes originated with the ancient Celts, and was believed to protect them from evil spirits. In the 19th and 20th centuries, men in Glamorgan, Wales would often crossdress. (And yes, now I am picturing my own ancestors in drag, like some Monty Python bit.) The festival of Calan Gaeaf also marked the beginning of Winter, and like many cultures throughout the world, was believed to be a day when the spirits of the dead returned to earth to visit.
There are some scary traditions associated with the holiday, such as writing one’s name on a stone and throwing it in a fire. If any stone went missing after the fire went out, the person bearing the name would be the next to die. Horror movie plot, anyone?
Although I admit, I find the Welsh dark streak a bit endearing and relateable. It must be in my genes.
MERGING WITH CHRISTIAN BELIEFS
Later on, as Christianity spread throughout the world, the pagan holidays were combined with the feast of All Hallows’, which is traced back to as early as 731. During All Hallows’, Christians would remember their dead by lighting candles and visiting cemeteries, among other celebrations. Carrying lanterns made out of carved out turnips were primitive Jack O Lanterns, and were believed to represent the souls of the departed.
Before the Reformation, Halloween was not typically a scary or dark holiday. It was more like a celebration or a remembrance of the dead, as often done in cultures throughout the world. After the Reformation, Protestants challenged the doctrines associated with All Hallows’ celebrations. Since they did not believe in Purgatory or in souls returning to earth, they believed that any spirits that did return were actually evil spirits, or devils.
Halloween spread to America with the early colonists. Anglicans and Catholics celebrated All Hallows’ Eve, while Puritans were adamantly opposed. As we know, a mere mention of practicing witchcraft would mean execution. In other parts of the country, such as Cajun Louisiana, Halloween celebrations were more common. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead, or Dia De Los Muertos, became popular in the 20th century, which combined ancient indigenous celebrations honoring the dead with the traditional Catholic All Saints’ Day celebration brought over by the Spanish settlers. It wasn’t until the late 18th and early 18th centuries, when Irish and Scottish immigrants began to arrive in the United States, that Halloween began to resemble the holiday that it is today.
HALLOWEEN IN MODERN TIMES
The first mass-produced Halloween costumes began to appear in stores around the 1930s. With the onset of television, Halloween began to be popularized into what it is today. In the 1950s, trick or treating became a popular custom for children. In the 1970s, there was a shift from traditional costumes – such as witches and ghosts – to pop culture characters, ranging from Disney to Marvel and even Star Wars. Today, Halloween marks one of the biggest commercial holidays in the United States.
This year, and maybe even from now on, I am going to look at Halloween with a new perspective. Instead of cringing when I see the Halloween decor in the store and making up excuses for why we won’t decorate our porch with plastic bats whenever my daughter asks, I am going to attempt to incorporate some of these ancient historic traditions from my European Celtic heritage into the present. Maybe I will set out some photographs of my ancestors and light some candles. Maybe I will even take it a step further and freak out the neighbors by carving Jack o Lanterns out of turnips.
Do you have any Halloween traditions in your family or your culture? Share them with me!