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Monday, October 5, 2009

History of Halloween

Dating back to the ancient Celtic Druids, the festival of Samhain (Festival of the Dead) was celebrated on October 31. The festival was observed by England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to designate the end of the year.

As the sun went down an darkness set in, the preparation for Vigil of Samhain (Lord of Darkness) began. It was believed the veil separating the living and the dead was at its thinnest this eve. The Druids firmly believed the spirits of those who had died in the past year would cross over and walk the earth on this night. Magical powers were greatly enhanced and communication with the spirits reigned.

The villagers doused fires in their homes because they feared and believed the walking dead might find their way in and possess the living. Outside, the Druids built great bon fires (bone fires) and there is debate as to whether human or animal sacrifices were used. Some say only sick animals that would not survive the winter were sacrificed where others say criminals possessed by evil spirits were the sacrificial offerings. And once the embers had died down and cooled, the Druids would read the bones to determine the fate of the coming year.

One famous ritual practiced by the Druids was to light torches from the bonfire, march through the village and in turn, use these torches to light the wood in their hearths. This sacrificial fire was thought to ward off evil spirits and invite the spirits of their kin to enter the home. This was done while wearing furs and scary masks (a prelude to present day Halloween costumes). It was believed the evil spirits would mistake them for animals and not attempt to possess their bodies.

Another tradition was for peasants to go from door to door, begging for food. The food was then left outside to appease the spirits, feeding them before they returned to the spirit world. Those that gave food would be assured good fortune for the coming year while those that gave nothing had eggs and rocks thrown at their homes. This legend holds true today with the pranks of Devil’s Night.

Since Samhain marked the end of the year, the power to predict was at its strongest. Fortunes were told through the reading of bones, tea leaves and countless other rituals. In the seventh century, the Romans conquered England and brought many of their own traditions with them. One of these was the celebration of All Saints Day, originally celebrated in May. By the ninth century, All Saints Day was moved to November 1st and All Souls’ Day, a day to celebrate all dead souls was added to November 2nd.

The Catholics hoped that by combining the Pagan festival of Samhain with their own holiday, they could convert more people. At this point, Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve, the eve before hallowed days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Eventually, All Hallow’s Eve was shortened to Hallow E’en and then to Halloween and has claimed that title ever since.


P.L. Parker said...

Very interesting. I love reading about the Druids. Loved the Halloween superstitions too, but I can tell you, if I heard someone walking behind me, I sure as heck am going to turn around. I want the opportunity to run if I need to.

Sharon Donovan said...

Hi Patsy. You and me both! Who in their right mind would turn around when they know someone is chasing them down. Just keep on running for dear life, sister! LOL I enjoy doing research about the ancients too. And doesn't the name druids conjur up such frightening images!

Mary Ricksen said...

I wish I was a druid. Wouldn't it be cool to have magical powers!

Sharon Donovan said...

LOL Mary! Or how about a witch? I always wanted to scry. Know what that is? It's in tomorrow's Halloween blog...all about the Halloween witch!

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

Nice post. I've done research on this topic, too. Sooo fun to learn more about it.

Sharon Donovan said...

Hi Karen, thanks for dropping by! I know, it's one of those research things where it really draws you in, huh. I did research for a St. Patrick's Day story and learned so much about the ancient druids and their festivities I've been fascinated ever since.