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The Library of Congress Research Centers home collections & research services online collections halloween Halloween The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows Jack Santino Halloween had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead. The Celtic peoples, who were once found all over Europe, 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 Halloween costume a
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   The Library of Congress >> Research Centers  home >> collections & research services >> online collections >> halloween Halloween The Fantasy and Folklore of AllHallows Jack Santino Halloween had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-ChristianCeltic festival of the dead. The Celtic peoples, who were oncefound all over Europe, divided the year by four major holidays. According to their calendar, the year began on a daycorresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. Thedate marked the beginning of winter. Since they were pastoral people, it was a time when cattle and sheep had to be movedto closer pastures and all livestock had to be secured for thewinter months. Crops were harvested and stored. 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 biggestand 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 theliving, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into theotherworld. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires inhonor of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On thatday all manner of beings were abroad: ghosts, fairies, and demons--all part of the dark and dread.Samhain became the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted tochange the religious practices of the Celtic people. In the early centuries of the first millenniumA.D., before missionaries such as St. Patrick and St. Columcille converted them to Christianity,the Celts practiced an elaborate religion through their priestly caste, the Druids, who were priests, poets, scientists and scholars all at once. As religious leaders, ritual specialists, and bearers of learning, the Druids were not unlike the very missionaries and monks who were toChristianize their people and brand them evil devil worshippers.As a result of their efforts to wipe out pagan holidays, such as Samhain, the Christianssucceeded in effecting major transformations in it. In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First issued anow famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples heHalloween costume at a deaf social club, photo byStephanie A. Hall  hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs, the popeinstructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut itdown, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and it became a basic approachused in Catholic missionary work. Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with nativeholy days. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25th because itcorresponded with the mid-winter celebration of many peoples. Likewise, St. John's Day was seton the summer solstice.Samhain, with its emphasis on the supernatural, was decidedly pagan. While missionariesidentified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion'ssupernatural deities as evil, and associated them with the devil. As representatives of the rivalreligion, Druids were considered evil worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits. TheCeltic underworld inevitably became identified with the Christian Hell.The effects of this policy were to diminish but not totally eradicate the beliefs in the traditionalgods. Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted, while the church made deliberate attemptsto define them as being not merely dangerous, but malicious. Followers of the old religion wentinto hiding and were branded as witches.The Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November 1st. The day honored every Christiansaint, especially those that did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. This feast daywas meant to substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion of the Celtic peoples, and, finally, toreplace it forever. That did not happen, but the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status, becoming fairies or leprechauns of more recent traditions.The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of thetraveling dead was too strong, and perhaps too basic to the human psyche, to be satisfied with thenew, more abstract Catholic feast honoring saints. Recognizing that something that wouldsubsume the srcinal energy of Samhain was necessary, the church tried again to supplant it witha Christian feast day in the 9th century. This time it established November 2nd as All Souls Day--a day when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead. But, once again, the practice of retaining traditional customs while attempting to redefine them had a sustaining effect: thetraditional beliefs and customs lived on, in new guises.All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (hallowed means sanctified or holy), continuedthe ancient Celtic traditions. The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intenseactivity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a timeof the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil. The folk continued to propitiate those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out gifts of foodand drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe'en--an ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year's Day in contemporary dress.Many supernatural creatures became associated with All Hallows. In Ireland fairies werenumbered among the legendary creatures who roamed on Halloween. An old folk ballad called  Allison Gross tells the story of how the fairy queen saved a man from a witch's spell onHalloween.O Allison Gross, that lives in yon tower the ugliest witch int he North Country...She's turned me into an ugly wormand gard me toddle around a tree...But as it fell out last Hallow evenWhen the seely [fairy] court was riding by,the Queen lighted down on a gowany bank  Not far from the tree where I wont to lie...She's change me again to my own proper shapeAnd I no more toddle about the tree.In old England cakes were made for the wandering souls, and people went a' soulin' for these soul cakes. Halloween, a time of magic, also became a day of divination, with a host of magical beliefs: for instance, if persons hold a mirror on Halloween and walk backwards downthe stairs to the basement, the face that appears in the mirror will be their next lover.Virtually all present Halloween traditions can be traced to the ancient Celtic day of the dead.Halloween is a holiday of many mysterious customs, but each one has a history, or at least astory behind it. The wearing of costumes, for instance, and roaming from door to door demanding treats can be traced to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of the Christianera, when it was thought that the souls of the dead were out and around, along with fairies,witches, and demons. Offerings of food and drink were left out to placate them. As the centurieswore on, people began dressing like these dreadful creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This practice is called mumming, from which the practice of trick-or-treatingevolved. To this day, witches, ghosts, and skeleton figures of the dead are among the favoritedisguises. Halloween also retains some features that harken back to the srcinal harvest holidayof Samhain, such as the customs of bobbing for apples and carving vegetables, as well as thefruits, nuts, and spices cider associated with the day.Today Halloween is becoming once again and adult holiday or masquerade, like mardi Gras.Men and women in every disguise imaginable are taking to the streets of big American cities and parading past grinningly carved, candlelit jack o'lanterns, re- enacting customs with a lengthy pedigree. Their masked antics challenge, mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night,of the soul, and of the otherworld that becomes our world on this night of reversible possibilities,inverted roles, and transcendency. In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a partof life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.September 1982
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