“It’s said that All Hallows’ Eve is one of the nights when the veil between the worlds is thin – and whether you believe in such things or not, those roaming spirits probably believe in you, or at least acknowledge your existence, considering that it used to be their own. Even the air feels different on Halloween, autumn-crisp and bright” – Erin Morgenstern
Most Americans think of Halloween as an excuse to dress in costumes, throw parties, and eat lots of candy but did you know that the holiday has spiritual roots dating back 2000 years? Let's take a trip back in time to modern day Ireland and Scotland where it all began.
Many consider Ireland and Scotland to be the original birthplace of modern day Halloween. The holiday originates from the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. Samhain was celebrated on November 1st and translates to 'summers end'.
The end of summer was an important time for people who survived off their own land to prepare for the upcoming winter. The beginning of the cold and dark winter was associated with human death.
The Celts believed that on Samhain the veil between the living and the dead was thin as the dark winter approached. For this reason, they believed that the spirits of the dead roamed the Earth the night of the festival.
They would celebrate the transition in seasons by lightning bonfires, leaving food and wine outside their doorsteps, and wearing costumes when outside their homes so that spirits wouldn't recognize them.
After the Roman Empire conquered a majority of Celtic territory, the Christian traditions began to merge with Samhain over hundreds of years. The Christian influence eventually dubbed November 1st as All Saints Day or All Hallows. The night before became All Hallows Eve, later shortened to Halloween.
November 2nd was known as All Souls Day. Popular traditions in Medieval Britain included:
- "Souling" - the needy would pray for deceased relatives of local towns people in exchange for pastries called "soul cakes"
- "Guising" - young people would dress up in costume and receive food, wine, or sweets in exchange for singing, reciting poetry, or telling jokes
What began as a spiritual holiday believed to be a time when the dead could be present on the earth slowly began to transform to Halloween as we know it today.
Halloween Arrives in America
In the 19th century, as more and more Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in America to escape the potato famine, they began to revive their traditions in the new world. As beliefs and customs of the diverse American population began to mesh, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to develop.
When Halloween first became popular in America, it was dominated by "tricks" played by local children to receive "treats". Wearing costumes was popular among people of all ages and "trick or treating" involved a lot more pranks than we are used to today.
The 1950s marked the transition into the family friendly and commercialized holiday we know today. It's estimated that Americans spend $6 billion between costumes and candy for Halloween making it the second most commercialized holiday behind Christmas!
Halloween Around The World
Cultures across the globe have always had ancient traditions to celebrate the changes in seasons with the autumnal equinox having especially spiritual roots with honoring departed loved ones.
Although Halloween as we know it in America is quite unique to our country, Ireland’s traditions have evolved in a similar fashion as it is largely considered the birthplace of Halloween. Other European countries with large American populations/tourism have adapted a similar style holiday as well.
Other countries have traditions all their own which mirror the origins of the holiday and are centered around a spiritual practice and celebration of the dead.
Día De Los Muertos
Possibly the most well known “Halloween-like” holiday to Americans is Día De Los Muertos which is a 3 day festival that commences the evening of October 31st. While the holiday is celebrated throughout Latin America, it is most strongly associated with Mexico. The festival honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations. It is believed that the dead return to Earth during this time and are part of the community once more.
Many families construct an altar to the dead in their homes to honor deceased relatives and decorate it with candy, flowers, photographs, and drinks. Candles and incense are burned to help the deceased find their way home and relatives ensure the house is tidy. The celebration wraps on November 2nd when relatives visit the graveyard to picnic and reminisce.
Japanese Obon Festival
The Obon Festival takes place in Japan over the summer. This event honors the spirits of one’s ancestors with fires lit each night and red lanterns are displayed and released into rivers and the ocean. Many families have used this celebration as a reason to return to ancestral family places to visit and clean graves. Much like Día de los Muertos, it is celebrated over a three day period and has similar customs.
China: The Hungry Ghost Festival
The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month which typically falls in July or August. This festival is one of several traditional festivals in China to worship ancestors. Others include the Spring Festival, the Qingming Festival, the Double Ninth Festival, as well as the New Year celebration.
Chinese believe that on the first day of the month, ancestors are able to return to Earth and it is traditionally a scary day for the culture. Traditions include burning make-believe paper money, lighting incense, and may make sacrifices of food to worship the hungry ghosts. Red paper lanterns are also a popular decoration.
Haiti: Fed Gede
Fed Gede, or “Festival of the Ancestors”, is a Voodoo holiday celebrated in parts of Haiti and Haitian communities around the world. People take part by building altars, lighting candles, and travelling to ancestors burial places to celebrate their lives.
While traditions vary, it's clear that there is a common thread across global cultures to celebrate and honor the dead. Ancient cultures were guided by the seasons and the stars hence the heavy significance on the coming of winter, a time of cold darkness associated with the dying and dead. It's interesting to see how traditions evolve to present day. While most Americans have lost touch with Halloween honoring deceased loved ones, the influence of ghosts and the dead is very much present. The Celts used to dress up in costumes because they feared the dead would recognize them and fear is the major role in American Halloween.
No matter if/how you celebrate Halloween, we hope you enjoy the transition in seasons this time of year brings!
How do you celebrate Halloween? Have you taken part in any of the traditions we discussed or something like Halloween? Please tell in the comments below, we would love to hear from you!