The History of Halloween 101

Halloween is upon us. The past few weeks have seen nearly every shop, on every high street draped in Halloween commodities. Nearly every advert on TV exhibits a Halloween overtone. Schools and youth clubs are actively embracing the Halloween festivities. The commercial celebration of Halloween appears deeply entrenched into British traditions.

This has not always been the case. Halloween has not always been a candy coated, fun filled and commercially glazed holiday for all.

The origins of the celebration we now refer to as Halloween date back 2,000 years to the Celtic festival of Samhain. This day marked the end of the harvesting period, and welcomed the dark and uncertain winter. Winter, in those times, was associated heavily with human death and on the night of October 31, they believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica,

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic Festival of Samhain was observed on October 31, at the end of summer…. The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, goblins, black cats, fairies and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favorable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes.

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.

By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2, All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It’s widely believed today that the Church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related church-sanctioned holiday.

All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Souls Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas and the night before it. The traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

The deeply spiritual and religious roots that have underlined halloween from its conception are seldom acknowledged in today’s festivities. The convergence of pagan and christian holidays are somewhat of a common occurrence, in attempts to almost drown out the pagan roots.

During this time, it is almost impossible to escape the Halloween tradition because of its predominance in popular cultural and within the school environment. Inevitably, Muslim children and the wider Muslim community will be exposed to it and to some extent engaging with it. It is critically important that parents understand the origins of the holiday and make an informed decision about participating in it. 

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