About 2,000 years ago in the area of the world that is now
Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, lived a group of people
called the Celts. The Celts' lives revolved around growing their food,
and considered the end of the year to be the end of the harvest season.
So, they celebrated new year's eve each year on October 31st with a festival
called "Samhain," named after their Lord of the Dead (also known as
the Lord of Darkness). Samhain (pronounced 'sow-in') was presided over by
Celtic priests called Druids.
Back then, winter was the time of year associated with human death. The
Celts believed that on the night that marked the end of summer and the
beginning of winter, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead
blurred allowing ghosts of the dead to return to earth. Celts thought
that the presence of the ghosts made it easier for the Druids, their priests,
to predict the future. These predictions were an important source of comfort
and direction for the Celts during their long, dark, frightening winters.
To celebrate Samhain, the Druids built huge sacred bonfires around which the
Celts gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to their ancient
gods. During the celebration, the Celts dressed up in costumes consisting
of animal heads and skins and tried to tell each other's fortunes.
The Celts eventually were conquered by the Romans, and by about the year 43 AD
two Roman festivals were combined with the Celtic Samhain festival. The
first Roman festival was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans
traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day
to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of
Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain
probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples practiced
today on Halloween.
By 800 AD, the influence of Christianity spread into Celtic lands. In the
seventh century, replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but
church-sanctioned holiday, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st as All
Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. The combined and updated
celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English
Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day) and the night before it, the night of
Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
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