The predecessor of modern-day Halloween is the festivity that began All Saints’ Day, which started at sundown on October 31. The etymology of the word HALLOWEEN reveals its true meaning. The name Halloween is actually a shortened version of “All Hallows’ Even,” the eve of All Hallows’ Day. It comes to us from medieval English: ‘HALOWEN’ or ‘HALWEN’ which means literally: to make holy, to sanctify; and as well: to reverence, to honour as sacred, to venerate. All Hallows’ Day is simply another name for All Saints’ Day, the day Catholics commemorate all the saints. At some point, people began referring to All Hallows’ eve as “Hallowe’en” and then simply “Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a secular, community-based event characterised by child-friendly activities such as trick-or-treating. In a number of countries around the world, as the days grow shorter, and the nights get colder, people continue to mark the winter season with gatherings, costumes and sweet treats.
The way we celebrate halloween nowadays is actually a combination of several different traditions, despite the fact it takes its name from All Saints’ Day. Most of the traditions of Halloween, date back to Samhain, the ancient Celtic New Year. The Celts lived 2,000 years ago, in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. They celebrated their new year (Samhain) on November 1st. Samhain marked the biggest turning point of the year: a change in the weather as well as a shift in everybody’s lives. Samhain, which translates to “end of summer,” was an observance of all the important things that were happening during this change of seasons, and according to celtic traditions, it is also a time full of magical properties. The end of October is a time of year that is often associated with human death, because it is the time that marks the beginning of the dark, cold winter.
Halloween has always been a time of celebration and superstition. In Celtic times, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, and the people gathered to burn crops and animals, as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. Celtic celebrations involved costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and people attempting to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, Celtics re-lit their hearth fires to help protect them during the coming winter.
It is also known that later, in medieval times, people celebrated the season with “soul cakes”. Soul cakes consisted of simple bread desserts with a currant topping. Children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treaters, and this practice was called “souling”. For every cake a child collected, he or she would have to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake, and it was believed that these prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere, and it was extremely limited in colonial New England, because of the rigid Protestant belief systems there. As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. When new immigrants came to America, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the celebration of Halloween was popularised. Following Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go knocking on houses asking for food or money, and this practice eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
Birth, growth, death and renewal are part of an endless cycle, and Halloween celebration is a reminder that there is a Spiritual World, so we don’t have to fear death. Everything that ends also represents a new beginning. We shouldn’t go through life totally unaware of how important it is to nurture our spirituality, and honour the souls in the Spiritual World. We should embrace this season as an opportunity to renew, to let go of negativity, and to rediscover our true selves.
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