Halloween is considered by many as the most popular celebration of the year. However, many people fail to realize that the commemoration attached to Halloween are rooted in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Their Celtic ancestors today are the peoples of Ireland, Scotland & Wales. At the end of the first millennium, towards the end of the Roman occupation of the British Isles, Celtic influence waned with the prominence of Catholicism supplanting the ancient beliefs of the pagan tribes of Europe. Samhain was the celebration of the harvest by the ancient Irish peoples. The night of 31 October (Halloween) is Oíche Shamhna (Irish) and was considered the beginning of the Celtic new year.

This period of celebration is marked by a celebration of Celtic ancestors and it was quite common for the ancient peoples to visit the tombs of the dead or their burial places. When they visited these places of burial it was common to set a place with food for the departed ancestors, and the ancestors were invited to join the revelers at the table for a feast of the fruits of the harvest. In addition to the ancestor feast, mumming and guising was also part of the harvest celebration which included going from neighbor to neighbor’s house in costume in return for food. This was partially part of the way the costumes evolved, namely to disguise the celebratory visitors from identification by their neighbors.

Around the ninth century, the Catholic Church shifted the celebration of All Saints from May and place it on the Roman Calendar to November 1st together with the remembrance of All Souls on November 2nd. As a result, the celebration of Samhain merged into the Halloween we know and celebrate today.

Many aspects of Samhain are based in Irish mythology which held the belief that at the time of the harvest celebration, the relationship between the worlds of the dead and those of the living were at their closest points. Ancient Irish peoples believed it possible for the spirits or souls of those departed could pass from the nether world back into the land of the living during the period of the harvest celebrations.

Great bonfires and feasting were part of the celebration of the Celtic Samhain and so even today it is not uncommon for modern Halloween celebrations to take place by the light of the Fall moon, with the backdrop of bonfires to provide both light and warmth as the celebrations of our modern Halloween continue.

As Catholicism began to displace the pagan myths and mythologies of the Celtic world, the rites and rituals of the past in essence were baptized and became part of the celebrations of All Saints and All Souls Day in a manner that is part pagan and part Catholic collection of harvest traditions coupled with the commemoration of the Saints and a remembrance for those still in Purgatory hence the Feast of All Souls.

Uniquely, the great bonfires were ignited to protect those celebrating on the eve of All Saints and often the fire from the celebration was taken by lighted tapers into the home to dispel darkness and to keep the occupants warm. The usage of fire was a remnant of the divination rituals of the Celts and in one ritual, the stones of the hearth were examined after the fires burned out in the morning. The direction of the stones purported to foretell the deaths of those in the household towards whom the stones were pointed. All in all, celebrations around fire and the hearth were intended to provide insights into matters of life and death, marriage and birth and other human activities for the coming year. In a similar way we exalt the new fire on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil, ancient Celts now embracing Christianity continued to observe their ancient activities for many generations after the conversion to the Church.

Although Halloween is the collective recipient of ancient Celtic traditions, it remains a date on the calendar that attracts cross sections of modern society to participate in the festivities. Today we still engage in mummery and dress in costumes visiting neighbors for treats. We continue to threaten those that fail to participate in the celebration with the potential that tricks will be played on them if they don’t provide the costumed adults and children with a confectionary treat.

Regardless of Halloween’s ancient roots in a pagan celebration of the fruits of the harvest, it is indeed a welcome celebration of life which is enjoyed by children and adults alike. However, you choose to celebrate the Halloween rites of, Trick or Treat, it is most appropriate to always remember that in post-Celtic Ireland it became a celebration of the Church’s saints and commemorated those faithful people that died and have not achieved sainthood. So, as we gather our new harvests, the treats of visiting all our neighbors and friends let us pause to celebrate the Catholic feast of All Saints Day and commemorate All Souls Day with a prayer, a smile and a sugary treat remembering it was the Irish that gave the world this celebration, joining paganism with Christianity in a way the world will never forget.

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