Halloween as it is celebrated these days is but a pale representation of its rich and multicultural history. It is not, as some would call it, a celebration of the Devil or of Hell or of the Damned, but rather a blending of the celebrations marking the end of the growing season, a heralding of the coming of the winter months and folk traditions that told of the day when the veil between the living and the dead, ever a transparent, gossamer veil at that, would lift and ghosts and ghouls would walk among the living. From those many traditions, coming to us from the Celts, the Roman rituals and even Catholic tradition, we get the stirrings of what would eventually become Halloween.
Back in the Old Days
Back in the old days, or once upon a time, in the tradition of fairy tales, there were the Celtic people and their Druid priests. The Druids were believed to have the ability, among other skills, to commune with the dead. Their powers, it was rumored, were much more powerful on the day of Samhain (pronounced sow-en), which was the last day of the year in the Celtic calendar. But, before believing that the Halloween celebration came directly from Samhain, a day mistakenly attributed directly to the Wiccans rather than to the Celts, you must understand that it is a blend of Hallowmas, a celebration of Catholic origins, as well as the Roman festival called Feralia.
On the day of Samhain, the Celtic people would all extinguish their home’s hearth fire. They would gather in front of a blessed bonfire and would sing, dance and listen to the stories that were told during the celebration. At the end of the evening, each person would take some of the bonfire home to relight their heart fire in hopes of ensuring good fortune to their home and family for the coming year. It is said that if your hearth fire would not light from the sacred bonfire, misfortune, even death, would befall someone in the house that very year.
By the 19th century, most of the religious aspects of the Halloween celebration had dwindled away and it was mostly a secular holiday, a gathering of community with only some of the remnants of the past clinging to it like the cobwebs of a haunted house. People would still dress up in costume, but less for the original reason of confusing the dead and more for just plain entertainment and fun.
Halloween Travels to the New World
European immigrants brought many of their traditions and beliefs with them to the New World, even those that were sometimes frowned upon or scoffed at. Halloween itself was largely disallowed, even forbidden, but in Maryland, the tradition was not only allowed but encouraged. The people there held what they called “play parties” where they would take turns telling each other’s fortunes, dancing, singing and telling ghost stories. The children would dress in costumes and try to scare one another as well.
The Irish immigrants came to the new world in great masses, fleeing from the Potato Famine that was starving them to death, and brought with them the Halloween tradition of going door to door looking for sweets and other treats. The tradition of trick or treating is still a favorite among little children today.
The Witchcraft, Halloween Connection
There are still many, especially among fundamentalist Christians, who believe that Halloween is nothing more than a celebration of paganism and witchcraft because of some of the traditions that are involved. It was thought that on Halloween night, a young woman could determine who her future spouse would be by staring into a mirror in a darkened room or by peeling an apple in one long strip and then casting the peel over her shoulder. Other traditions involved baking small coins and trinkets as well as a single, plain ring into a barm brack, a type of fruit cake that would be shared among the neighbors. If you got a trinket in your piece – that was your fate for the coming year, with the person who got the ring destined to wed.
While the Catholic Church bears no ill will toward the Halloween traditions and the holiday itself, there are some Christian churches who say that it encourages witchcraft and may even lead to Satanism. These churches hold “Hell Houses” meant to scare children and young adults away from the traditions and to lead them back to the church. Some of these churches even hand out pamphlets and religious tracts on Halloween night to be found when the children go through their candy.