Where Did Halloween Originate?
Where did Halloween originate?
Samhain, Hallowmas, All Hallows' Eve, Hallowe'en. October 31st, mostly known as Halloween, has had many names throughout the centuries, but the underying roots of the holiday still remain in tact. Whether you know about the origins of Halloween or not, the beginnings of the holiday can be attributed to an Irish Pagan harvest festival known as "Samhain" (pronounced Sah-win or Sow-en).
Where did Halloween originate? Halloween as Americans know it today has many traditions and practices that are a mixture of different cultures; however, the holiday's original purpose as the harvest festival Samhain originated in Ireland. Not only did Ireland celebrate this harvest festival, but other Celtic countries of Celtic times celebrated in their own ways, as well. But for all sakes and purposes, we are going to take a look at Halloween's Pagan origins as they relate to Ireland's Samhain festival.
Halloween's Pagan Origins Explained
It is a common belief with many strict Christians that Halloween's original name Samhain means something along the lines of "Satan's Day"; however, this is factually untrue. The term Samhain actually translates to November, so the name has nothing to do with the Christian Satan. That being said, much of the resentment towards Halloween from strict Christians is probably due to the fact that Samhain was originally known as the night when the "veil between the worlds" was at its thinnest, meaning that the living's dead ancestors could return to earth and walk among the living. In fact, many family Samhain traditions included setting a place at the dinner table for their ancestors who might return on Halloween night. Some Irish folks and even Pagans today still follow this tradition and call it a "dumb supper", as they do not speak during the entire Halloween dinner in honor of dead loves ones and ancestors who went before them. This was only one part of the celebration of Samhain to the Pagan Irish, though.
Again, Samhain was a harvest festival and the last of three harvest festivals, and many Celtic peoples looked at Samhain as the New Year, as it marked the time when the days would wane and the nights would take over the better portion of the day. Deciding what animals were to be slaughtered and how much grain was to be stored was a big part of the Samhain tradition, as Irish families had to prepare for the coming winter months without abundant crop on their land.
Some of the other Irish traditions of Samhain included bonfires, costumes, and lit turnips. The bonfires were believed to be used in which to light the night and the way for the returned dead, as well as the idea that if an Irish family could cast the bones of one of their cattle into the bonfire then that would assure for a good harvest for the next coming year.
As you will watch in the National Geographic's intriguing video of Halloween History to the right, the church became influential over almost the entire continent of Europe by the seventh century, including Ireland, and so Halloween's pagan origins were attempted to be stomped out with the introduction of All Saint's Day on November 1st. But, unbeknownst to the church, Halloween's pagan origins wouldn't be totally lost.
The Irish people, then called Pagans (the word originally meant country-dweller) by the church, still carried on some of their most favorite Halloween traditions, including dressing in costume, bonfires, and bobbing for apples. These Halloween pagan origins continued on into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and were eventually brought to America by Irish imigrants, most especially during the Great Potato Famine in Ireland in the nineteenth century.
In Victorian America, Halloween's pagan origins were being incorporated into the holiday of Halloween, without most people even knowing where Halloween or its traditions originated or why. Bobbing for apples and different forms of divination were popular among the rich folks, as well as parties in which they would perform these Halloween traditions.
An example of divination that was used in the Victorian times include tea-leaf readings and mirror scrying. Women would usually perform these divinations in order to find out who they were going to marry, because whether they realized it or not, Halloween was still considered to be one of the most powerful days in the year. That is how Halloween's pagan origins were brought to America and have stayed instilled in our culture ever since.
The church gave it their all in an attempt to introduce All Saints' Day as a conversion process for leftover pagans who still celebrated Samhain or Halloween pagan traditions, but they couldn't rid the world of Halloween for good. In spite of the winter solstice being taken over by Christmas and the spring equinox (Ostara) being taken over by Easter, Halloween would not be wiped out for All Saints' Day.
So why do you think Halloween is a day wrapped in legends and stories about witches and black cats? The answer is simple - due to Halloween's pagan origins. Anyone in the days of early America who practiced Pagan traditions were most likely thought of to be a "witch" and were in danger in many places of being hung or burned at the stake. Because Halloween was undoubtedly a Pagan holiday, it then became associated with "witches" and their cohorts or familiars, black cats. The church decided to try again to pull the public away from Halloween's pagan origins by spreading stories of witches ruling Halloween night, riding on the winds on their broomsticks and "lying" with the devil.
Well, I guess modern day Pagans can sort of laugh at this attempt, as now the majority of American and other countries' cultures have absorbed the ugly image of the witch into Halloween's culture and enjoy dressing as witches and being frightened by others at the same time!
This Halloween, or Samhain, why not revel in some of the most ancient pagan traditions? Bob for apples, divine with tea leaves, build and enjoy a bonfire, even throw a costume party! Have a harvest feast and enjoy what the earth has provided for us this year. Happy Halloween and Samhain to everyone! Be safe and cautious and most of all...have fun!
An Old Spell for All Hallows' Eve
When the white dog is out and trots all about
Under the clouds that are over the moon
And the hag with her broom rides high on the wind,
And the cat on the fence spits even at friends,
Then it is right to conjure a light against
every spirit that shadows the night.
Let the pumpkin's candle glare
into darkness everywhere,
Burn all evil from the air!
When it is dark and the black trees roar;
Set Jack O' Lantern to watch by the front door.
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© 2011 Kitty Fields