The festival of Halloween takes place on the evening of 31st October every year. It was originally a Celtic festival although it was not called “Halloween” until much later. The Celts called the festival “Samhain”. The Celts were a tribal people who dominated much of Western Europe until they were brought under Roman rule about two thousand years ago.
The Celtic new year began at the beginning of November. November is the beginning of the dark time of the year when the days are short and the nights are long. The return of darkness was celebrated with a fire festival.
The Celts believed that the souls of the dead visited the earth on the evening between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year, that is, on 31st October.
In Roman times some parts of the Roman autumn festivals became popular among the Celts at this time of year. For example two widely celebrated festivals were the Roman festival of Feralia, which was a festival of the dead, and the festival of Poloma, which was a harvest festival named after the goddess of fruit and trees.
When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire the Catholic church tried to suppress the celebration of non-Christian festivals. However, many Christian Celts continued to practice the old festivals, such as Halloween.
Eventually, instead of trying to stop the old festivals, the Catholic church adopted a more pragmatic policy and gave the festivals a Christian meaning. The Catholic church made 1st November a holiday to celebrate the early Christian saints. In this way, the Celts were able to continue practicing some of their old customs.
The name of the 1st November holiday was All Hallows Day (“hallow” means “make holy”) – the day of holy people, or saints. (Today it is called All Saints Day.) The name of the festival of 31st October, Halloween, comes from the combination of the word “hallow” and the word “evening”. So Halloween really means “the evening before All Hallows Day”, just as “Christmas Eve” means “the evening before Christmas Day”.
Because Halloween is the evening when the spirits of the dead are said to come back to earth it has been called Devil’s night, or Hell’s night because many of those spirits are thought to be wicked. In the 19th century the wicked spirits began to be represented as witches.
Halloween is also called mischief night – a time to play tricks on others, just as wicked spirits are said to do. People dress up in costumes and go “trick or treating”. Children knock on people’s doors and ask for a treat. If a person does not give them anything they play a trick on that person.
People scoop out the insides of pumpkins and cut faces into them and burn candles inside. These illuminated faces are said to scare away wicked spirits.
Another traditional custom is to “bob” for apples. Apples are floated in a bucket of water and people try to take them out using only their mouths.
Nowadays Halloween has become a popular way to celebrate the coming of autumn, especially in America. People often celebrate Halloween by dressing up as witches, demons or ghosts and attending fancy dress parties.
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