Many thanks to Andy Kilroy,
Oak Meadow teacher of grades 5-8,
for this terrific blog post!
Halloween began as the Gaelic festival Samhain (pronounced SAW-win), which was celebrated on the British islands among the Celtic population who were eventually converted to Christianity during the period of the Romanization of Britain, probably in the fourth or fifth century C.E. The Celts had many festivals to honor their gods, but the four most important, called the “four quarter days,” were Samhain, Imbolic, Beltaine, and Lughnasa. These festival days were times of meetings, games, feasting and sacrifice to the gods, and they lasted about a week, three days before the actual holiday and three after the holiday.
Huge bonfires were lit, some historians think for purposes of sacrifice, but perhaps to keep away the harmful spirits,and there were many customs around fire for this particular holiday. One of these was lighting up carved turnips called jack-o-lanterns by the Celts. Another popular aspect of Samhain was “mumming” or dressing up. The mummers would dress up as various spirits like ghosts and ghouls and go house to house and perform little songs or skits. In return, they expected to be fed by the householder. One of the most popular costumes was the hobbyhorse, where a man would cover himself with a large piece of cloth and carry a decorated horse skull before him. If all this sounds familiar, it should, because this is also a very good description of the way Halloween is celebrated today.
It must have been a great relief to children when the pumpkin came to Europe during the Columbian exchange in the 15th and 16th centuries and they no longer struggled to hollow out a hard turnip to make their jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkins are bigger, softer and the cavity is full of seeds that are easily scooped out (and are also tasty when roasted!). Modern people still put on costumes and go from house to house expecting to be rewarded with food. We call this trick of treating and usually only children participate in this activity, and the food they seek is usually candy.
We still have bonfires, and spooky creatures are still said to walk the streets during this scary holiday, although they are usually just other children dressed up too. Halloween kicks off the holiday season that starts with Halloween and ends with New Year’s Day with roughly one major holiday a month to brighten the darkest months of the year.
Children every year look forward to this uninhibited holiday where they race through the dark, running through mounds of fallen leaves, feeling delightfully frightened out in the dark, and carry out the age-old customs that come to us from an earlier time in history, and for which we can thank the ancient Celtic civilization. Thanks to the adaptability of the early Christian church, converts to Christianity in ancient Britain could now embrace the new religion with its promise of eternal life, but still enjoy a cold, dark night at the end of October, when spirits walk the streets and demand to be fed, even if the spirits are just children asking for candy door to door.
Happy Halloween Everyone!