Halloween has gone from a pagan to religious to commercial holiday. Nowadays many people don’t know the real meaning of Halloween nor the origin of Halloween traditions.
Halloween today has come to represent candy and costumes and, in some critics’ minds, over-commercialisation since the adoption of Halloween in the United States. But the origins of Halloween and many Halloween traditions have humble beginnings. Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity, life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition full of death and evil spirits, that are still recognisable in the sinister and frightening costumes weared today.
Halloween, a European festivity
Halloween has originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. People thought to encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people weared masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. To keep ghosts away from their houses, people placed bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter. In addition Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. Druids prepared potions and people lighted bonfires with crops and animals as sacrifices and weared costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, to ward off roaming ghosts and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. During the Celtic end-of-summer festival during which people felt especially close to deceased relatives and friends. For these friendly spirits, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween. This was an attempt to replace Celtic traditions with an official church holiday; symbols of Samhain were transferred to the Christian holiday, such as bonfires, parades and dressing in costumes such as devils, angels and saints.
All Hallows or All Hallowmas comes from Middle English Alholowmesse, meaning All Saints’ Day, and the night before – the traditional celebration of the Celtic religious festival Samhain – began to be called All Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
Over time, Halloween evolved from a somber pagan ritual to a day of merriment, costumes, parades, parties and sweet treats for children and adults. Halloween has become a largely celebrated holiday, particularly in the US.
Halloween, a European holiday?
Halloween on 31 October is not that big festivity as in the States. It is for instance less celebrated than the sombre All Saints Day on 1 November, when families visit and place flowers on the graves of loved ones. Although the two holidays are supringly more connected than many people know, Halloween isn’t an official holiday and All Saints Day is. All Saints Day is not an official holiday in the Netherlands.
Halloween in the Netherlands
Halloween isn’t widespread in the Netherlands. Each year more stores stock their shelves with costumes and other festive merchandise, and more Halloween-themed events pop up in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Expats in particular keep the imported tradition alive, and there are even reports of trick-or-treaters in some pockets of the country.
Halloween is in a certain way similar to St Martin’s Day celebrated on 11 November. This marked the beginning of the harvest season in during which the slaughter and preservation of cattle for the winter months was carried out. Children go door to door singing songs, carrying handmade paper lanterns (a bit like the North American pumpkin lanterns) and they get candy. Sounds familiar? Nowadays in the Netherlands kids have the chance to get the candies twice!