Friday, October 30, 2015

Some History of Hallowe'en

[Nyerges is the author of Extreme Simplicity, How To Survive Anywhere, and Guide to Wild Foods. He has led outdoor field trips since 1974.   He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]

How did all this Hallowe’en stuff get started? It turns out that the modern Hallowe’en commemoration is a smorgasborg of symbols, very much like the Christmas holiday takes bits and pieces from all over the world from different eras.

The origins of this day go back to the ancient Celts, at least 2000 years ago, to the people who eventually settled in Ireland and northern France. They divided their year into four equal parts, which were the equinoxes and solstices, for which they had special feasts. They also had special days which were more-or-less the half-way point between the equinoxes and solstices.

One of these half-way points was the feast of Samhain, pronounced “sow-wen.”  Samhain literally translates as “summer’s end.”  This half-way feast, celebrated anywhere between October 31 and November 6, marked the end of summer, the harvest, and the beginning of the dark dreary winter.  Samhain was regarded as their New Year, when the dark half of the year was beginning. It was during this time that people believed that ghosts and/or spirits were returning to the earth, and could be more readily contacted by the Druids, which were the Celtic priests and priestesses. 

People built big bonfires where animal sacrifices were burned (the origin of “bon-fire” was “bone-fire,” since the bones of the animals would burn up too). Costumes would be worn, and according to historians, these were mostly animal heads and skins.  A big part of the feast was to try and tell the future, such as would you get married, or how would your crop do this year.  The ghosts and spirits were not feared, but were summoned in order to learn the unknowable.

In the first century, by at least 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered the Celtic territories, and perhaps tactfully used that political influence to combine two Roman festivals into the existing Samhain festivals. Feralia was a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the dead, and this was combined into the Samhain commemoration. They also rolled the commemoration of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees, into the Samhain event.  That’s probably the origin of the “bobbing for apples” on Hallowe’en.

Then, on May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV established All Martyrs Day on May13 to honor the saints and martyrs of the church. About a hundred years later, Pope Gregory III moved the May 13 observance to November 1, today called All Saints Day, which they hoped would blend with the existing Celtic rites already being commemorated on that day. By the year 1000, the church created All Soul’s Day for November 2, to honor all the dead.

The All Saints Day holyday was called All-hallows, and the night before it began to be called All-hallows Eve, which is where we get Hallowe’en.

And that’s just the 25 cent version!

In medieval Britain, the day would be observed by going door to door with a hollowed turnip which had a candle in it. The turnip was said to represent a soul who was trapped in purgatory, and you could make a prayer for the deceased by giving food to the turnip-carrier.  Others believed that such turnips actually warded away evil spirits. The pumpkin was a strictly American innovation, since pumpkins were common here and were easily carved out.

This, of course, is how the “trick or treating” began.  It has, of course, evolved and devolved in many directions.

Witches on broom sticks, black cats, candles, cauldrons, and the like have become the popular symbols of this day, each of which has a full back story which we don’t have space for now.  Some of it is not suitable for a family publication.


In Mexico, back before the Spanish conquest, Day of the Dead has long been observed as a day when family and friends gather to remember and pray for those who have died, and to give them moral support on their spiritual journey.

In its origin, historians can trace this event back to an Aztec festival to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. Prior to the 16th century, this commemoration of the dead was scheduled in the beginning of the summer.  It was moved to October 31 through November 2 during the reign of the Catholic church so that it would coincide with the Catholic three days of All Saint’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.  Though people mostly in the southern parts of Mexico commemorated this day, it  has now been declared a public holiday by the Mexican government. 

The Day of the Dead is commemorated with private altars (you can see them at the square at Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles), sugar skulls, marigolds, the favorite foods of the departed, and face painting.  Unlike the fear-focus of  Hallowe’en, the Day of the Dead seems more about remembering and honoring the dead, and wishing them well.

It’s noteworthy that most cultures in the world have their commemoration of the dead, in various forms. The Buddhist Bon festival is one example, as are many worldwide examples with many variations from Europe, China,  Japan, Phillipines, Australia, Nepal, Indonesia, etc.

With such a rich holiday, it’s a shame that so many of us have turned it into silly costumes and fear-invoking zombies.  Members of the Wiccan religion gather  and conduct a ceremony in a circle, giving respect to the powers of the universe and each other, and then sharing a meal.  Yes, there are always many ways to commemorate any holiday.  If you don’t like the way that our popular culture goes through its routines, then step out of the routine and try a more meaningful and enlightened way, the best you are able.

Comments? I’d love to hear from you! 


Carl H said...

My Mom dearly loved Halloween and always decorated/cooked/had a great time. She's gone now, but tonite I'm thinking of her. Think I'll set aside a few minutes tomorrow to look at old photos of the family and think good thoughts.

christopher Nyerges said...

Good idea~! That's really what this day is all about.