“All Hallows’ Eve”: On Halloween’s History and Lost Rituals
Via Ligonier Valley Historical Society
In about a week or so, the halls will be filled with gruesome monsters, reptilian fiends, bloodthirsty vampires, charming witches, zombie nurses, and a bunch of unknown characters from niche TV shows as well. The lucky ones will have their professors give out dollar store candy, some will disdain those who had the guts to dress up, while others will seize the occasion to get drunk while dressed as sexy felines. Trick or treat! Or should I say, what the hell has Halloween come to be?
Halloween as we know it is an eclectic, modern-day collage of borrowed rituals. Stolen from Celtics and tweaked by Christians, Halloween bears an elusive history. Samhain, the ancestral Gaelic holiday, marked the passage from summer to winter, and was celebrated in northeastern Europe, where Ireland, France, and the United Kingdom now stand. Although festivities culminated on November 1st, the celebrations did kick off on the night of the 31st. On this peculiar night, Celtics believed the veil between the living realm and the land of the dead was at its thinnest. The gates dividing these kingdoms would open, the portal would unravel, through which the souls of the dead would crawl to visit their loved ones on Earth. As this connection was established, Druids would communicate with their esteemed guests, bargaining for a clement winter, and making predictions for the living. The reunion featured huge bonfires, where the Celtics, often costumed, would sacrifice crops and animals, praying these offerings would facilitate the transition to winter.
The Roman Empire then proceeded to expand and conquer Celtic territories, appropriating Samhain, from which two distinct celebrations arose. In late October, Feralia first took place; this night served to commemorate the passing of the dead, who were mourned and honoured. On the next day, the second ceremony, Pomona, would be observed; Romans would pay tribute to Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees, whom the apple symbolizes. In 380, Christianity was declared the Empire’s official religion, and Pagan (Indigenous, including Celtic) rituals became vilified, until they were entirely supplanted by Christian festivities around the 9th century. These new religious rites were often eerily similar to their pagan equivalent, a strategic play from the Church as to maximize converts’ numbers. This marks the birth of “All Saints’ Day,” or “All Hallows’ Days,” held on November 2nd, a celebration which would honour the dead, and especially Christian saints and martyrs. The festivities comprised dressing up as biblical figures, such as saints, angels, or even Satan himself.
At the dawn of the 16th century, when King Henry was denied the annulment of his marriage, the Church of England was created, setting the stage for a greater acceptance towards the Protestant community. Nevertheless, Protestants remained oppressed, particularly under Queen Mary I’s reign, also known as Bloody Mary for the relentless, brutal executions she would order upon those who refused to adhere to the Catholic Church laws. The systematic persecution of Protestant compelled Separatists, Puritans notably, to flee the country for New England, America. During the colonial era that ensued, the level of observance of All Hallows’ Eve would vary, yet persisted. The nature of the festivities was further altered through presumed exchanges with the Indigenous populations, borrowing the idea of harvest celebration from native religious practices. It was only when the United States obtained their independence that the term Halloween started to gain in popularity, as the “Eve” in Hallows’ Eve was abbreviated to “een” for convenience.
Since then, Halloween has been scattered around the globe through European imperialism. While the holiday often rhymes with cheerful festivities, the harsh reality behind Halloween’s worldwide observance lies in the inhumaneness of assimilation under imperialist regimes. In many regions, the lines between Christian practices and local cultural rites have been blurred, giving rise to heterogenous traditions, such as Mexico’s Día de los Muertos. Although Halloween’s history does hold a gloomy colonial past, the celebration represents a rich, unforeseen blend of dual narratives and values: resistance when faced to oppression, finding joy in mourning, honouring both life, and nature through death. Often associated with the occult and the morbid, Halloween is the ultimate proof of the perennity of folklore, community, and identity.
As Westerners, we relinquished Halloween’s traditions and initial significance to the commercial, consumerist, futile frenzy which rhymes with our modern-age definition of the holiday. What we conceive to be Halloween is the mere echo of its golden days, when cultural heritage and spiritual nourishment shaped its very core. Why celebrate harvests, pray for a temperate winter, or communicate with the dead if these rituals lost all societal value? By distancing ourselves from our customs and their origins, we surrendered the healing, powerful essence of these celebrations.
Can’t you hear it? The midnight bells ring for us spooky season lovers; we must recover the heritage of the holiday we so dearly adore. What if we incorporated Halloween’s roots and their significance to our practice, instead of purely using October 31st as a gateway for excessive consumption? How does that sound?