Editorials, Opinion

Editorial Encore: Halloween across time and cultures

Editor’s Note: This editorial was originally published Oct. 31, 2021.

Happy Halloween!

A fun fact for you: “Halloween” is a contraction of “Hallow Eve,” or “All Hallows’ Eve,” as we’ve sometimes heard today called.

It’s fascinating to trace the history of Halloween from an ancient religious festival to the fun and frightening secular “holiday” we know now. It’s believed All Hallows’ Eve has its roots in the Celtic festival Samhain. Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest — the Celtic New Year, which fell on what we would know now as Nov. 1. It was also a day for the dead: Those previously passed could revisit their homes and interact with the living, while those who had passed away in the last year moved on. This was also the day creatures, such as fairies, could pass from the Otherworld into the mortal realm.

Samhain celebrations are thought to have involved large bonfires to scare off negative spirits and revelers dressed in costume. Unfortunately, there’s much speculation about the ancient festival but little fact; details are lost to antiquity and obscured by historians who did not understand the traditions.

At the time of Roman conquest, Samhain was blended with the conquerors’ fall celebrations of Feralia, commemorating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, the goddess of the harvest, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. And then when Christianity arrived around 5 A.D., the pope moved All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’ Day), which celebrated the passing of God’s faithful, from spring to fall. The now usurped Nov. 1 became the centerpiece of a trifecta of Christian feast days, All Hallows’ Eve (Oct. 31), All Saints’/Hallows’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2, when the faithful prayed for the souls of sinners).

We, of course, celebrate a secularized version of the festival on Oct. 31, though we’ve kept a surprising number of traditions: Wearing costumes, sharing food, making or preventing mischief, creating light and believing that, if only for tonight, we are not alone. (Take that as you will.)

In every culture, it seems there is a time when the veil between the world we see and the world we can’t becomes thin, and it tends to be in autumn, when days get shorter and nights get longer, and the harvest comes in just before everything that once was green dies.

There’s the familiar Dia de los Muertos — the Mexican Day of the Dead that coincides with All Saints’ Day. Of course, there’s the Celts’ Samhain we associate with Ireland and Britain, though once upon a time, Celtic tribes’ territory stretched from the British Isles to modern-day Central Europe and Turkey. In Asia, there’s the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival (in August or September), Japanese Buddhist Obon and the Hindu Pitru Paksha among others. A little closer to home, there’s the Voodoo Fet Gede in Haiti.

Thousands of miles and years separate these traditions, and yet, they all touch on common themes: Food, spirits (of the ghostly variety) and light; the transition from plenty to scarcity, the endurance of the soul after the body is gone and the necessity of light to banish the darkness and all that we fear may be in it.