The story of Halloween begins more than 2400 years ago when the western world was dominated in the south by the Carthaginian empire, in the east by the Greeks and in the north by the Celtic tribes. Rome at this time was little more than an afterthought on the Italian peninsula, sandwiched between the Greeks to the south and the Etruscans to the north and east.
The ancient Celts were an assortment of tribes and small kingdoms with many distinctive languages and cultures, but most shared a belief that the transition from summer and the harvest to the beginning of the dark, cold winter was a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and it was possible for the ghosts of the dead to return to earth.
These ghosts and spirits were believed to cause trouble, damage crops and even kill people who were not careful when going out at night. The near presence of these spirits, however, also enabled the Druids (Celtic priests) to make more accurate predictions of future events – prophecies that were an important source of comfort during the long, dark winter.
The Celtic new year, marking the start of winter, began on the modern equivalent of 1 November. A major festival was therefore celebrated on the previous night and was called Samhain (pronounced sah-win). The Celts would extinguish their hearth fires, using the embers to light huge sacred bonfires where everyone would gather to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. They would typically wear animal heads and skins as costumes, perform rituals to appease the ghosts of the dead and attempt to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they would re-light their hearth fires from the “purified” flames of the bonfire.
To ensure that the harvests would not be damaged by these spirits, the Celts would leave token offerings of the harvested food to placate them. They would also place glowing embers from the bonfire – representing the good magic of the sun – inside hollowed out vegetables, representing the harvest. It was believed that this religious practice would help preserve their food through the dark half of the year.
The offerings of harvest food was an obvious beginning to trick-or-treating practice. Hollowing out turnips or rutabagas so that fires could be put inside became the precursor to our modern day pumpkin carving.
By the beginning of the Christian Era, the Romans had conquered and occupied both the Carthaginian and the Greek empires as well as controlling most of western Europe. With the expansion of the Germanic tribes in eastern Europe, the Celts had been largely displaced, remaining dominant only in what is now Britain, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
Many of the Celtic religious festivals, however, were incorporated into Roman traditions. For example, Feralia was a public festival celebrating the spirits of deceased individuals when Roman citizens brought offerings to the tombs of their dead ancestors and extinguished the fires from their hearths. The parallel with Samhain was obvious and the different date (21 February) was conveniently ignored.
The other was the festival of Pomona, the goddess of fruitful abundance who watched over and protected fruit trees and cared for their cultivation. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and its incorporation into the Romanized version of Samhain may be related to the tradition of bobbing for apples that is frequently part of modern Halloween parties.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire, early leaders of the Catholic Church recognized the importance of pre-Christian customs in people’s lives and sought to convert those celebrations to a Christian religious purpose. We’ll explore this in the next part of our series, “The Christianization of Halloween”.