Halloween is probably my favorite holiday of the entire year, but likely not for the reasons you think. While I love tricks and treats, I love the history of the holiday more. Many of the traditions we still keep were started as a way to honor the dead, and I think there's something incredibly beautiful in that. Even if we've forgotten why we do the things we do this one day of the year, it makes me happy to know how many of the old traditions we still cling to.
Halloween isn't a new holiday by any means, but instead can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-een). For the Celts (and many modern day Pagans), Samhain marked the end of the harvest season. It was the Celtic New Year. Samhain was a time to reflect on what had passed, and to plan for the year ahead. Samhain festivals often included both seriousness and prayer, games and revelry.
During this time, the veil between worlds was believed to be thinner, allowing for those on the other side to slip through. People left out offerings to appease the Aos Si (spirits or fae). In many areas, the offerings left to appease the spirits included turnips. The turnips were often intricately carved to frighten off the more tricksome spirits. That tradition, of course, continues in our use of carved pumpkins.
In addition to the more mischievous or naughty spirits returning, people believed that dead relatives were able to visit on this one night. The brief return of these relatives was very much welcomed, and people made a point to ensure their deceased loved ones knew they were welcome by setting places for them at their tables. Prayers for the dead were an important part of Samhain.
In some areas, people would dress in costumes and go door to door, collecting gifts of food along the way. Sound familiar? The story on why this custom started depends on who you ask. According to some, dressing up in costume was a way to hide from the more mischievous spirits who returned to Earth on Samhain. According to others, the custom started with Christianity, in which the poor and young children would go door to door, saying prayers for the dead in exchange for what was known as soul cakes.
As people began to realize costumes helped hide them from other people as well as from the Aos Si, they'd play tricks on one another, another tradition which continues to this day.
Pretty cool history for something we consider a silly holiday, isn't it?
What's your favorite Halloween tradition?
One of my favorite traditions comes not from the history, but from my little nephew, Aloshua. Losh is a pretty special kid, and he loves Halloween. Every year since he was three, he's been The Great Pumpkin. I'm not kidding. For eight years, he's been the cutest pumpkin. This year, he says he's going to be the Hulk instead, but I can't help but look back at all of his years as The Great Pumpkin and smile.