Halloween is about two weeks away, so I figure I write a post about it’s pagan origins, just like Christmas and Easter before. Because of this, it’s time for a post about the pagan roots of Halloween.
I suspect that the roots of Halloween are primarily Celtic. In other words, pre-Christian Western Europe, before the Medieval period. Also, I have heard that parts of Europe believed there was a special day where all sorts of spirits, including the dead, would come to the mortal realm, and they would celebrate that day.
The ancient celebration is known as Samhain, a name that carries on in the modern age as a Neopagan festival, and a Sabbat in the Wiccan tradition. Samhain marked the end of the harvest season, and the beginning of the “dark half of the year”. See, the Celts divided their year into two halves. There was the light half of the year, and there was the dark half. The light half of the year consisted of spring and summer, with longer days and shorter nights, while the dark half of the year consisted of autumn and winter, with shorter days and longer nights. The end of the light half of the year was celebrated on Samhain. Fitting, as the name Samhain is said to mean “Summer’s End”. Apparently, costumes and treats were part of the Celtic celebration, which would probably feed into trick or treating. It is also seen as a time where spirits, fairies, ghouls, demons, and the like could more easily enter the human world and be more active, and the dead would revisit.
When the Romans conquered Britain, the British Celts adopted the Julian calendar and celebrated Samhain on November 1st. While Samhain was a strictly Celtic festival, the Roman religion was probably incorporated into the celebration over the four centuries that Rome ruled Britain. In fact, some say Halloween is related to the feast of the Roman goddess Pomona, who was the goddess of fruit trees, gardens, and abundance, and/or a festival of Parentalia, which was a Roman festival of the dead which went on for nine days and began on February 13, or at least in elements.
The practice of carving pumpkins is said to date back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, who supposedly made a deal with the devil to ensure his soul would not go to hell. Eventually, he died, and after “God” barred him from heaven for making the deal, and the devil was bound by the agreement not to let him into hell, he was doomed to wonder the earth for eternity, with only an ember of hellfire to light his way. Admittedly, this is a Christian legend, but more of a folk legend. After Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving pumpkins to America, by the mid-late 19th century it became a Halloween staple. The Jack O Lanterns also have some relation to the will-o-wisp, and it was a folk tradition in parts of Britain to carry jack o lanterns to represent the souls of the dead and beg for treats, such as soul cakes.
In general, Halloween was about the coming of the dark seasons, the end of the harvest, and also spirits and the dead, and it was seen as a time when the world of mortals and the world of spirits and the dead could come to together. The difference is that nowadays, in our mostly Christian world, we view it as a time of evil. We sometimes make horror movies designed to enforce this Christian message and exploit the fear of the masses.
But make no mistake, the modern Halloween has some Christian influences, as well as some secular commercial influences, and is undoubtedly very different to the Halloween or Samhain of long ago. This is no surprise, because as Christianity spread and dominated the world, many pagan holidays were either Christianized or forgotten. However, the spirit is still there, just is it is in every other pagan/folk celebration.
By the way, Christmas, Easter, and Halloween are just about the only holidays with pagan holidays I’ve mentioned, so do let me know about any other holidays (especially famous or commonly celebrated ones) that are said to have pagan origins, and I’ll post about them in the future.