When we break Halloween down to its core meaning, it’s simply a harvest festival. However, to reduce it to that takes away the magic that has always surrounded the change of the seasons and the importance to ancient societies. Every culture had some form of harvest festival and a period of remembrance at the same time of year. The metaphor is obvious when we see it as the marking of the end of summer and the beginning of autumn heading into winter. This is how modern Halloween came about.
It’s important to urge caution when making claims about ancient Halloween just as it is advisable to be careful about calling it commercialist nonsense. The earliest written record we have detailing Samhain in any detail – the ancient precursor to Halloween – comes from 10th century Ireland. By this time, Ireland was already fiercely Christian. Much of what we know about the early period comes from Roman writers whose works were overly romanticised at best and politically biased at worst.
Thankfully, we know enough to demonstrate that many traditions that the Christian churches would adopt have their roots in the pagan British Isles, Gaul (France), and the Germanic lands.
The Catholic Tradition of Hallowmas
Adopted by the expanding influences of Christianity during the Early Medieval Period, the term later became known as “Hallowmas”. This is the liturgical period of remembrance for Catholics but also marked by some Protestant groups. Hallowmas begins on the night of the 31st October (known to some as All Hallows Eve) through 1st November (All Saints Day) and ends on 2nd November (All Souls Day).
All Hallows’ Eve: This aspect of Hallowmas has its roots in the pre-Christian traditions of Samhain. In England, it is readopted in the early Anglo-Saxon pagan period. It started at the harvest as a metaphor for death (of summer in this case).
All Saints Day: Catholicism has many Saints Days but only one day of the year when they are marked as a group. The tradition began when Pope Boniface IV re-consecrated Rome’s Pantheon as a Christian church. Interestingly, Rome had a form of All Saints Day known as Feast of the Lemures. During this period, evil spirits were exorcised from homes and public buildings.
All Souls’ Day: For Catholics, this day is about appealing to God through intercessory prayers for the deceased in purgatory, a plea to aid them through and into heaven. Protestants don’t accept the doctrine of purgatory, so this day is more about remembrance of deceased loved ones.
Mexican Day of the Dead
Mexico is mostly a Catholic country and many of the beliefs behind the period apply, but Halloween has taken on a life of its own. Known as “The Day of the Dead” – or Día de los Muertos – it covers the period of Hallowmas but celebrates departed friends and family rather than saints. It is likely that this colourful festival of remembrance with street parties may have begun in pre-Columbian Central American during the Maya and Aztec periods.
Mexicans build colourful shrines to the deceased and hold street parties with amazing food and drink. It’s not completely irreverent though; people are expected to visit graves and deposit food, drink, and items as offerings.
For all the accusations of commercialism and “legalised mugging” as some media cynically explain Halloween, it seems the Americanised version of the festival continues old Halloween in spirit. It has elements of the ancient and recent Christian attempts at syncretism (repurposing a belief or practice of an old religion into the new). People have always dressed up as spirits. Food, drink, and street parties are a large part of ancient Samhain and of Mexican Day of the Dead. Finally, there are some suggestions that handing over food to cold callers is the spirit of Christians giving generously to those in need.