Many of us are probably gearing up for this Thursday, Oct. 31st. Whether you’re buying candy bars in bulk to satiate the impending hordes of trick-or-treaters, dusting off an old fog machine to give your haunted house that final touch of creepy or still struggling to find the right makeup to perfect your zombie/walker costume, we know that Halloween has come. But what is the meaning behind the holiday we’ve grown up with?
Halloween is believed to have been influenced by a pre-Christian harvest festival called Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”), which marked the end of the summer and the beginning of the winter season for the Celtic peoples. As the Celts used a lunar calendar and divided the year into these two seasons, Samhain was the first day of the Celtic new year and was celebrated from sunset on Oct. 31st to sunset on Nov. 1st. During this time, it was believed that the souls of the dead, as well as other supernatural entities, were restlessly roaming the earth because the barrier between worlds, or the time between the old and new years, was temporarily broken. Sacrifices, as well as offerings of food and drink, were made to appease these spirits and ensure the Celtic people’s survival throughout the winter. To avoid being recognized by wandering spirits, celebrants would disguise themselves in feathers and fur, a tradition that we still carry on today, albeit primarily in polyester.
Although Samhain remained popular among the Celtic people throughout the Christianization of Great Britain, the British church may have added a Christian celebration to the calendar on the same date in order to lessen the impact of these pagan customs. As a result, Halloween is also known as Allhallows Eve because it precedes All Hallows, or All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1st). This feast is a solemnity that is held in honor of all the saints, both known and unknown. All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2nd) completes the Christian Triduum of All Hallows, also known as Hallowmas, which is a time to remember departed saints, martyrs and Christians.
For more information on Halloween and other festivals, check out the resources available at Falvey Memorial Library:
- Trick of Treat: A History of Halloween is a recently published book that traces Halloween from its Celtic origins through popular culture today.
- Check out Holy Holidays!: The Catholic Origins of Celebration for a fresh new look at the religious roots of secular holidays like Halloween, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s.
- Search for holidays, festivals and other celebrations in Gale’s Encyclopedia of Religion.
- Browse our print Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary
Want to learn about the origins of the jack o’ lantern? Check out these two brief articles from History.com:
Still curious about Halloween or other days of celebration? Leave a question or post a comment below.
Alexander Williams, ’11 MA, is the temporary librarian liaison to the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a research librarian on the Academic Integration and the Information and Research Assistance teams. He is currently pursuing an MS in Library and Information Science at Drexel University’s iSchool.