Symbols of Halloween: From Celts to Candies

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It’s obvious by now that I love Halloween. So throughout the rest of this week, I am going to be posting blogs and articles related to my favorite holiday, spooky locations, and symbolic traditions! Today’s post is a very brief overview of some of the more diverse aspects of what we consider a traditional American understanding of Halloween. Of course, these are just a handful of cultural influences, among dozens more. Got anything to add? Comment!

I always try to do a short blog post on holidays discussing their actual history and background, as opposed to the popular sensationalized understanding. Halloween is another one of those Americanized holidays, that people think is only about candy, scary masks and pumpkins. The roots of Halloween in contemporary America are actually quite diverse. Halloween as we currently understand it is a conglomeration of a bunch of different traditions, rituals, and cultural celebrations from different regions of the world.

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One of the earliest known origins of Halloween is the ancient Celtic celebration known as Samhain (pronounced sah-win). This was a celebration that began on November 1st and marked the beginning of the Celtic ‘dark’ season, their year being broken into a dark season and a light season. Samhain translates to ‘summers end’ and signifies what we would consider the coming of the Fall. The Celts believed that on this night, the worlds of the living and the dead were closely in association with each other, and that the spirits of the deceased visited the living. This celebration was pagan and animistic in nature, and often involved rituals practiced around a large bonfire. You can read more about the introduction of pumpkin-carving as it relates to Samhain here.

When Roman conquest swept through Ireland and the British Isles, the Roman holiday of Feralia came to be associated with the pagan Samhain celebration. This was a commemorative day, for the souls (or manes) of deceased individuals. Offerings of food, wine and other goods were presented to the dead in their tombs as a means of appeasing the spirits and stopping them from ‘haunting’ the living.

With the Christianization of Ireland came the eradication of Pagan activities and rituals, which often consisted of the incorporation of pre-existing cultural traditions into Christian celebrations. Samhain translated into All Hallows Eve, the pre-All Saints Day celebration of the souls of deceased individuals. The Christianizaiton of Samhaim brought about new traditions that are utilized in contemporary Halloween celebrations. For example:

“Begging at the door grew from an ancient English custom of knocking at doors to beg for a “soul cake” in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. Soul cakes, a form of shortbread — and sometimes quite fancy, with currants for eyes — became more important for the beggars than prayers for the dead, it is said.”

Halloween was further cemented as a tradition by Pope Boniface IV who in 609 CE established the feasting on All Martyrs Day, and Pope Gregory III who included saints into the festival, and moved the date to Nov. 1st. In 1000 CE, the Catholic church made the decision to establish November 2nd as All Souls’ Day, as a means of both incorporating Celtic populations into Catholic practices, and acculturating paganistic celebrations.

“Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.” (source)

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Another pervasive influence on American Halloween celebrations is the Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebration, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. On this day, families construct elaborate altars within the home, upon which they leave goods and treats for their deceased loved one. A popular and well known item is the candy skull, which portrays a highly colorful and decorative depiction of the afterlife. After all, Dia de los Muertos is a celebration more than a mourning ritual. During this celebration, children often don costumes and go door to door in their neighborhoods asking for sweets, much like American trick-or-treating. (Stay tuned for a more in-depth post about Dia De Los Muertos this weekend!)

With its introduction to North America, Halloween was not well perceived by the Puritans, who saw its practices as satanic and entirely un-Protestant. Catholic groups embraced the tradition however.

“Colonial Halloweens were celebrated as Harvest Festivals, with lots of eating and drinking, music, dancing, ghost stories and fortune telling. (All of these were things that were disapproved of in Puritan New England. Some more of our modern Halloween symbols were introduced at this time, as traditions were blended with Native American harvest festivals. Corn stalks and pumpkins – unknown in Europe before the discovery of North America – became part of Halloween imagery.” (source)

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Halloween was cemented as a popular American tradition in the mid-nineteenth-century with the arrival of scores of Irish immigrants escaping the famine years. They brought with them both their Celtic heritage celebration of Samhain, and its incorporation into the Christianized All Hallow’s Eve.

Much of our contemporary understanding of Halloween is influenced by popular media – zombie movies, Dracula, Frankenstein, witches, ghosts, monsters, etc. But at the root of the holiday lays much deeper pagan cultural ritual that evokes an animistic connectivity between the human and natural world, as well as the perceived connections between the worlds of the living and the dead.
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2 responses to “Symbols of Halloween: From Celts to Candies

  1. Pingback: Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) | Imponderabilia·

  2. Pingback: Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) | Imponderabilia·

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