Of Celts, the dearly departed, candy, and other hallowed things.

by on October 16th, 2018
Of Celts, the dearly departed, candy, and other hallowed things. Cover Image

Halloween was a holiday that I loved and hated when I was a kid…I found it a little nerve-wracking to come up with a good costume idea, to dress up and go out in front of people, and to go knock on doors. BUT–the candy. I loved Halloween because of the outrageous amount of candy you could get, for free, by just walking around for a couple hours. It was unbelievable, like a dream come true. Now that I’m older, I can buy my own candy and satiate my sweet tooth like a normal person, but I still enjoy handing out candy to the kids who come to my house, seeing them in all their spooky spectacularness. Just how did this fantastic holiday come to be? I’m glad you asked!

As I have before (for Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) I went to the excellent America’s Favorite Holidays by Bruce Forbes to find out. As is often the case with days we celebrate, the beginnings of our Halloween can be found centuries ago, and is related to the change in seasons and how that affected everyday life. The Celtic people in Ireland and the British Isles (ca. 500 BCE)¬† celebrated a harvest-season festival called Samhain; this took place on November 1, a day that was essentially the beginning of their new year. This was the time when the agricultural season was ending and the harvest was brought in, and animals would be slaughtered so that they didn’t have so many to feed over the winter; in essence, their new year began when their work ended, they were flush with food, and they were getting ready to face the coming dark and cold season. They would have a huge three day celebration where accounts were settled, legal matters decided, food shared and bonds strengthened. This last hurrah of the year began the day before Samhain, October 31. In addition to the annual festivities, this was also an important time of year spiritually. No doubt they were influenced by the lengthened periods of darkness and the dying off of flora as winter approached, and they believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was less substantial.

Eventually, the Roman Christians came along, as they often did. Their first contact with the Celts of Ireland and Britain was in the 400s CE when missionaries were sent over. At the time, there was not a recognized Christian celebration that was similar to the Celts’ Samhain, although it’s certainly possible that early Christians did have harvest festivals at that time of year. It wasn’t until the 600s CE that All Saints Day, also called All Hallows, became an official Christian event, and it was initially on May 13; this was a holy day for commemorating dead saints. A couple centuries later, the Pope changed that day to November 1. Why November 1? It is easy to to surmise that the Church moved it to that day to compete with, or rather finally stamp out, the Celtic holiday that might have still been practiced or recognized by some people; other Christian holidays, such as Easter and St. Valentine’s Day, were intentionally celebrated on dates that were previously pagan holidays. However, there is also the possibility that All Saints Day was moved to a time of year when there would be an abundance of food, so that the people celebrating it would be well-fed and taken care of. About a century later, a second holy day was added on November 2, All Souls Day; this was a day to pray for the souls of those who were in purgatory, as well as the faithful who had died. All Saints and All Souls were referred to as Hallowtide or Hallowmas, basically, the season of the holy (saints) or the mass for the holy. And the evening before? All Hallows Eve, or Hallow’een, a time when the Church said the living should fast and pray to prepare for the following two days.

How did we get from that to the candy blowout that the holiday is today, in America specifically? In short, we owe our gratitude to the large number of Irish immigrants who came to the U.S., and brought their traditions with them. We also need to thank the Celts, who had converted to Christianity, but held onto some of their old ways. They properly recognized the holidays for the saints and the departed, but Hallow’een also took on special significance because of the long history and importance of Samhain. Instead of fasting and praying, they continued with their traditions of bonfires and games that aimed at telling the future. And, because this was still seen as a time when the dead could interact with the living, they continued another tradition to honor and appease those who had died: dressing up as souls of the departed and going around to all the houses to ask for gifts of food. So, when the little ones show up at your door shouting “trick or treat!” you can give them their little fun-sized candies, but also let them know that they are safe from the spirits of the dead who might be roaming the streets, at least until next year.

One Response to “Of Celts, the dearly departed, candy, and other hallowed things.”

  1. Adam says:

    Loved your article, BUT I’m almost certain that, if I tell the sweet little kids dressed as Elsa and Batman that my candy protects them from the spirits of the dead, my next trick-or-treater will be the Iowa City Police Department!

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