Sunday, October 25, 2009

Origins of Halloween traditions

As you take your children out on Halloween or stay home and pass out candy, do you ever wonder how all these traditions started? Did some child, hungry for candy, make up a holiday to get the forbidden sweets?

Not exactly.

As explained in an early blog, Halloween comes from the Celtic tradition of Samhain. Back in 43 C.E., Romans had conquered most of the Celtic territory and combined two of their festivals with the Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first festival was Feralia, a day in late October that Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second Roman festival was in honor of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona's symbol is the apple, which could explain the apple being part of Halloween.

The traditional dates for Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) are October 31 to November 1. However, the actual astrological date is the mid-point between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. So the actual date fluctuates year to year. I found two different internet sources regarding the actual date this year. One source says that in the Northern Hemisphere Samhain is on 10/31/09. Another says this year it is on 11/6/09. Here are the sources for more reading:
http://www.russellcottrell.com/celticDate/index.asp
http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/samhainoctober31/f/WhenSamhain10.htm

Moving on. Where do the typical Halloween traditions come from?
Here's a bit of background to better understand. Until the Church came along, Celts did not have a concept of heaven or hell or demons and devils. They believed that the dead lived in fairy mounds with the fairy folk. On Samhain, those who had died during the year would walk the earth until they came to the land of eternal youth and happiness. So, if you wanted to see your dead relative one last time, Samhain was the night to do so. Although the Celts didn't have demons and devils, they did have fairies who resented man for taking over their land (guess the fairies are a whole other article!). These tricky fairies would try to trick humans into getting lost in the fairy mounds where they would be trapped forever. So, not only did you have to avoid the fairy trickster, but you had to avoid your human buds too as this was a night mischief was allowed. Since it was believed that the night belonged to neither one year nor the other, chaos reigned and people engaged in all sorts of practical jokes. As part of the jokes, people would imitate the fairies and go from house to house begging for treats. If you gave them treats then they wouldn't play a trick on you. If you were one of these human tricksters, you also had to avoid the fairies who were out and about too. For protection from fairies, people would carry a turnip carved to represent the fairy faces. The poor fairy was supposed to believe that these turnip carrying people were under the spell of another fairy and leave them alone. Celts would also carve out the turnip and put a candle in it to use as a lantern. When the Irish immigrants came to North America, they found the pumpkin worked better than the turnip and combined the carving of fairy faces and the candle to give us our Jack O'Lantern.

Another tradition was fortune telling for the coming year, which was done with apples. Dunking for apples was a way to predict a marriage. The first person to bite an apple was the first to get married. The person with the longest apple peel was the person that would live the longest. Colors were also significant. Black and indigo represented death and orange represented harvest. Sound familiar?

So when you see all the children asking for candy as they walk by your Jack O'Lanterns you'll know where the traditions started.

To give credit where it's due, I took an online class about the different Celtic holidays. The teacher used a lot of online sites for the class if you'd like more information. It's really interesting to me to see how we get our own holiday traditions.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you on learning more about where our holiday traditions stemmed from. I would love to have the online sites for future references. Loved the post!

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