Halloween developed from ancient New Year festivals and festivals of the dead. In the A.D. 800's, the Christian church established All Saints' Day on November 1 so that people could continue a festival they had celebrated before becoming Christians. The Mass said on All Saints' Day was called Allhallowmas. The evening before All Saints' Day became known as All Hallows' Eve, or Hallow e'en.
The Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-wen) is probably the source of the present-day Halloween celebration. The Celts lived more than 2,000 years ago in what is now the United Kingdom, Ireland, and northern France. Their new year began on November 1. A festival that began the previous evening honored the Celtic god of death. The celebration marked the beginning of the season of cold, darkness, and decay. It naturally became associated with human death. The Celts believed that on Samhain the souls of the dead were allowed to return to their earthly homes for the evening.
On the evening of the festival, the Druids, who were the priests and teachers of the Celts, ordered the people to put out their hearth fires. The Druids built a huge New Year's bonfire of oak branches, which they considered sacred. They burned animals, crops, and possibly even human beings as sacrifices. Then each family relit its hearth fire from the New Year's fire. During the celebration, people sometimes wore costumes made of animal heads and skins. They told fortunes about the coming year by examining the remains of the animals that had been sacrificed.
Druidism, the religion of the Druids, involved the worship of many gods. The Druids regarded mistletoe and oak as sacred. They believed the soul was immortal and entered a new body after death. The Romans, who conquered much of Europe between about 300 B.C. and A.D. 100, tried to stop druidism. The religion died out after the Celts became Christians in the 400's and 500's.
Many of the customs of the Celts survived even after the people became Christians. During the 800's, the church established All Saints' Day on November 1. The people made the old pagan customs part of this Christian holy day. The Catholic church later began to honor the dead on November 2. This day became known as All Souls' Day.
Regional Halloween customs developed among various groups of Celts. In Ireland, for example, people begged for food in a parade that honored Muck Olla, a god. The leader of the parade wore a white robe and a mask made from the head of an animal. In Scotland, people paraded through fields and villages carrying torches. They lit huge bonfires on hillsides to drive away evil spirits. In Wales, every person marked a stone and put it into a bonfire. The people believed that if a person's stone was missing the next morning, he or she would die within a year.
During the 1600's, the descendants of the Celts became interested in their Druidic heritage. Today, several groups in Great Britain and Ireland practice what they believe to be ancient Druidism. They hold Druidic festivals at the beginning of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. A major celebration takes place at Stonehenge, a monument near Salisbury, England, that the Druids are said to have used.
In England, Halloween was sometimes called Nutcrack Night or Snap Apple Night. Families sat by the fire and told stories while they ate apples and nuts. On All Souls' Day, poor people went a-souling (begging). They received pastries called soulcakes in exchange for promising to say prayers for the dead, which may well be the origin of trick-or-treating.
Many early American settlers came from England and other Celtic regions, and they brought various customs with them. But because of the strict religious beliefs of other settlers, Halloween celebrations did not become popular until the 1800's. During that period, large numbers of immigrants arrived from Ireland and Scotland and introduced their Halloween customs.
During the mid-1900's, trick-or-treating became less popular in large cities, where many neighbors did not know one another. Halloween pranks, which had once been harmless, sometimes became rowdy and destructive. Traffic accidents also became a major problem on Halloween. As a result, family parties and large community celebrations gained popularity. Today, many communities sponsor bonfires, costume parades, dances, skits, and other forms of entertainment to celebrate Halloween.
While you may have dressed up as a witch for Halloween, you may not know that the term witch comes from the Old English word wicca, which is derived from the Germanic root wic, meaning to bend or to turn. By using magic, a witch is believed to change or bend events. Today, the word witch can be applied to a man or a woman. In the past, male witches were also called warlocks and wizards. Today, there are people who have tried to reconstruct these ancient customs. They use the word wicca to describe what they practice, and consider it a religion. Wicca is currently recognized by the United States government and, along with Druidism, is considered a legitimate religion by the U.S. armed forces.
Essentially, Wicca is a fertility religion that celebrates the natural world and the seasonal cycles that are central to farming societies. It acknowledges the Goddess as the feminine side of a deity called God. Witches worship both Goddess and God in various personifications, including ancient gods and goddesses. Rites are tied to the cycles of the moon, which is the symbol of the power of the Goddess, and to the seasons of the year. Wiccan religious holidays are called sabbats. There are four major sabbats: Imbolc (February 1), Beltane (April 30), Lughnasadh (or Lammas) (July 31), and Samhain (October 31).
Whether you consider it a religious holiday or a day for costumes and fun, have a safe, happy Halloween!