Over 2,000 years ago, Celts lived in Central and Northwestern Europe and celebrated their own type of Halloween, called “Samhain” (meaning Summer’s End). Celts were pagans, people who believed in many gods. They believed that they could communicate with good and evil spirits. The Celts celebrated November 1st as the new year. The night before was remembered as the end of summer, the end of harvest, and the end of the season where there were more hours of sunshine than dark. Samhain was the night when Celts believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth, damaging farms, causing trouble and communicating with humans.
To honor the ghosts, Celts built huge bonfires, burned portions of their crops, and offered animal sacrifices. The Romans reported the Celts offered humans as sacrifices. The Druids were Celtic priests, in charge of the ceremonies. On the night of Samhain, Druids believed they could communicate with the dead, and told the fortunes of others. After the ceremony was finished, the Celts took fire from the bonfire and lit their hearth fires, believing their home would now be protected from evil spirits.
At about the time of Christ, Romans conquered the Celts of Central Europe and much of Northwestern Europe. Also pagan, Romans celebrated the end of summer with a fall festival geared towards worshipping gods. The Roman Goddess of the harvest was Pomona, and her day was celebrated on November 1st. Pomona was also the goddess of love and fertility. It is believed that on November 1st, single Romans over a certain age were compelled to “marry” someone for a year.
In A.D. 313, Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, and in 380, Emperor Theodosius I declared Catholic Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christian leaders decided that instead of banning the celebration of Pomona and Samhain, they would assimilate some of the pagan rites into Christian ones. The day of Pomona became the day to remember and pray for the dead (All Souls Day), and the next day was the day to remember and pray to the Saints (All Saints Day). In England, All Saints Day was referred to as All Hallow’s Day, and the day before, as All Hallow’s Eve (which became Halloween).
On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther began the Reformation by reportedly nailing a text of 95 points against the Christian Church on the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenburg. Luther did not agree with the Church how someone became a saint. He thought someone became a saint through the grace of God alone, but the Catholic Christian Church taught that it was also through the actions of man. The Christian Church in Europe then split into the Catholic and Protestant religions.
In some countries of Europe, the celebration of Halloween was seen as Catholic and was outlawed. However, in Protestant England, the English celebrated their victory over Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who tried to blow up the Protestant-sympathetic Parliament in 1605. He was caught and executed. On Guy Fawkes Day (November 5th) every year, the Protestant English would reenact Fawkes’ punishment by parading a scarecrow, the Pope in effigy, and other unpopular political figures, through the streets. Boys would dress up in costume and beg for coal to burn the scarecrows. Then, the scarecrows would be set on fire. Also, boys would play tricks on their neighbors.
In America, Halloween evolved over the last four hundred years and is still evolving. Originally, Halloween was outlawed in many Puritan colonies, but in these colonies many celebrated Guy Fawkes Day and became fascinated with witchcraft and evil spirits. In colonies with religious freedom, Catholics celebrated All Souls Day and All Saints Day. The American Revolution brought forth a huge wave of religious toleration and civic participation, and Halloween started to evolve more into a community event instead of a religious one. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, Halloween became a time for parties, games for children, and matchmaking. In the 1900s, American magazines promoted how to throw the best Halloween parties and large candy manufacturers promoted the idea of giving out candy to those who want to play tricks. As America became modernized and mass media reached all households, it appears that the current Halloween custom was strongly endorsed by candy makers as a way to make more money. Most recently, department stores create and promote Halloween decorations and Americans spend great amounts of time, energy, and resources decorating their homes.
- What was the Celtic celebration of Samhain?
- What was the Roman celebration of Pomona?
- How did the early Christian church make the pagan celebration into a Christian one?
- What was Martin Luther’s protest against the Christian Church’s idea of how someone became a saint?
- About when in American history did the celebration of Halloween become more a community one and less of a religious one?