Small chills but also sweet treats!
“This is Halloween, shout with us,
make way for those who are more special than you!“
Nightmare before Christmas (1993) Tim Burton
The scariest day of the year has arrived!
Halloween is one of the best known and loved parties in the United States, which invade the American streets every October 31, wearing costumes and knocking from door to door for the famous “trick or treat”. But what someone does not know is that this celebrated holiday actually has deeply European roots.
The ancient origins of Halloween
To find the origins of Halloween we have to go back a long way, to the time of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts, who inhabited the current territories of Ireland, Great Britain and northern France about 2000 years ago, celebrated the beginning of the year on November 1st.
This day marked the end of summer and the story and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a period of the year that was often associated with death. The Celts believed that the night before the new year the barriers separating the worlds of the living and the dead were confused. On the night of October 31, therefore, they celebrated Samhein, in the belief that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
However, the Celts did not believe that the presence of spirits was only cause for trouble: it was in fact common belief that they facilitated the predictions about the future of the Druids. For a people completely dependent on the fickle nature of the world, these prophecies were a very important source of comfort and helped them to overcome the long and difficult period of frost that awaited them.
To commemorate the event, the Druids built many sacred bonfires, around which people gathered to burn crops and animals as a sacrifice to the Celtic gods. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes – usually animal heads and skins – and wished each other luck.
When the party was over, the fires that had gone out during the evening with the fire of the sacred bonfire were rekindled, certain that it would protect them from the imminent winter.
In 43 AD, the Roman Empire had conquered most of the Celtic territory. During the four hundred years in which they had ruled over the lands of the Celts, two feasts of Roman origin had joined the traditional celebration of Samhain.
The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day in honor of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The Pomona symbol was an apple, and it is probably for this reason that one of the traditional Halloween games is still the “bobbing for apples”, the famous game where you have to grab apples that float in the water only with the mouth.
l All Saints Day
On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon to Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs and dedicated a Catholic feast to them (the Day of Every Martyr). Later, Pope Gregory III expanded the feast to all saints – not just martyred ones – and moved the feast from May to November 1 – today’s All Saints Day, or All Saints Day.
During the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had also come to the Celtic lands, where it slowly began to replace the ancient Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the Church would have christened November 2 as the day to commemorate the dead (today’s Day of the Dead, All Souls Day). It is believed that the intent of the Church was to replace the Celtic feast of the dead with a holiday linked to the Catholic world.
The Day of the Dead was celebrated in a very similar way to Samhain, with large bonfires, parades, dressed in the costume of saints, angels and devils. All Saints Day was also called All Hallows Day (from the ancient English alholowmesse, which means precisely All Saint’s Day). So the Eve of All Saints became All Hallows Eve, to become today’s Halloween.
Halloween lands in America
Due to the rigid Protestant system, Halloween celebrations were extremely limited in the English colonies in New England (the northeastern coast from Maine to Connecticut). Instead, it was very common in Maryland and the southern colonies.
As the beliefs and culture of different European ethnicities mingled with those of Native Americans, a very “American” version of Halloween was beginning to form in the United States. The first celebrations included “game parties”, public events to celebrate the harvest, wish good luck, they danced and sang.
Colonial Halloween parties still included the tradition of telling horror stories and making jokes of all kinds. Although the celebration of today’s “Halloween” was not yet born, during the mid-nineteenth century the autumn holidays were very famous. It is precisely in this period that the United States is experiencing a new great immigration from Europe (especially Irish), fundamental for the growth of Hal’s popularity.