Many cultures allow for the return of the spirits of the dead on special times of the year. A familiar example is Halloween celbrated on 31st October, which is based upon an old Celtic holiday when the gates that normally separate the worlds of the living and the dead were opened, and the souls of those who had died during the past year, could then move into the Otherworld.
Halloween had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead. The Celtic peoples divided the year by four major holidays. According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. The date marked the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere. The date marked both an ending and a beginning in an eternal cycle.
The festival observed at this time was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year travelled into the Otherworld. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honour of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. Many believe that 5th November is a celebration of the burning of Guy Fawkes, who was said to have plotted the destruction of Parliament House, England, and thereby committing treason, but even this ‘celebration’ is based upon a much older tradition.
Samhain became the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. As a result of their efforts to wipe out 'pagan' holidays, such as Samhain, the Christians succeeded in effecting major transformations in the calendar. In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory I, issued an edict to his missionaries concerning the beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them.
In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with pagan holy days. Christmas, for example, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25th because it corresponded with the mid-winter celebration of many peoples. We continue to celebrate the Solstice usually around 21 December, which is the Sun’s ingress into the sign of Capricorn.
Samhain, with its emphasis on the supernatural, was decidedly pagan. While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion's supernatural deities as evil, and associated them with the devil. As representatives of the rival religion, Druids were considered evil worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits. The Celtic underworld inevitably became identified with the Christian Hell.
The effects of this policy were to diminish but not totally eradicate the beliefs in the traditional gods. Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted, while the church made deliberate attempts to define them as being not merely dangerous, but malicious. Followers of the old religion went into hiding and were regarded as witches and persecuted.
The Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November 1st. The day honoured every Christian saint, especially those that did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. This feast day was meant to substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion of the Celtic peoples, and, finally, to replace it forever. That didn’t happen, but the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status, becoming fairies or leprechauns of more recent traditions.
November 2nd was established as All Souls Day, a day when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead. All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (hallowed means sanctified or holy), continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil. People continued to propitiate those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out gifts of food and drink.
Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe'en, an ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year's Day in contemporary style. Today Halloween is celebrated and children are often seen dressed in macabre outfits, which, mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night. In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a once holy and magic evening. The early Church transformed this celebration into All Saints Day and All Souls Day on 1 and 2 November, respectively.
Trick or Treat? We would have to thank (?) those in the USA for that!