Following up on the previous posts on this bizarre holiday taking place, the next question is: How did Halloween become so popular? One note I must make is that despite serious study that contradicts the direct, complete link to the Celts and Samhain celebrations, most commentaries maintain this as the primary origin. Perhaps there are some ties between the two, but there is little doubt that Halloween as we know it today isn’t so simply traced.
Another point to ponder is that end-of-the-season and harvest celebratory feast were common to most cultures throughout the ages. For instance, the ancient Romans had a festival dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of the fruits of the tree, especially apples. The origin of Halloween’s special menus, which usually involve apples (as do many party games), probably dates from this period. This is merely one example. Another would be the various “Day of the Dead” observances common in Latin American countries for thousands of years, long before Europeans brought Catholicism (and thus All Saints Day) into their culture. All this muddies the water a bit!
Getting back to Halloween, the timeline below hits the main points up to the present.
Of particular interest is that many of the associated Halloween traditions date well after the Celts and Samhain celebrations had waned in importance. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, somewhere in the 6th to 7th century the Celts settled in Ireland (primarily). The Irish were notoriously superstitious and preoccupied with mythical beings. Fairies, pixies, leprechauns, puca, banshee, silkies, goblins, just to name a few of the prankster or downright evil spirits augmenting the folklore. As noted in the timeline above, the United States can largely thank the immigrating Irish for our present-day Halloween.
Not, however, exclusively. The importance of All Saints Day to the Catholic Church throughout Europe and the Anglican Church in England continued as the centuries passed. The sweeping superstitions and spiritualism born during the Dark Ages remained to varying degrees for a long time. Customs both honoring the dead and appeasing those lost souls with evil intent were rife. Assertions by Methodist Reformers that these spirits were in fact demons and/or the result of witchcraft worsened the dark nature of Halloween rather than eradicating it.
Halloween customs were regional and by no means pan-Celtic or consistent within a country’s borders. As more people relocated to the New World they brought their celebrations with them, most customs remaining exclusive to each culture group. As with Christmas, Easter, and other “American” holidays, the melding of how the holiday came to be commonly celebrated was a gradual process. Even today there are variables in different parts of the US, and elsewhere for that matter, but one common thread for Halloween is the focus on death, spirits, mischief, and anarchy.
Tomorrow, for the final entry into this 4-part history lesson, I’ll get as specific as possible on the origins of trick-or-treating, costumes, black cats, witches, and other rituals/customs surrounding Halloween.