Contrary to what you might believe, the origins of this festive occasion derive from our Gaelic brothers and sisters.
With Halloween fast upon us, it’s interesting to look at the origins behind this popular celebration. While many people look at this spooky night as being rooted in American culture (as some of its traditions are), it is in fact partly derived from an ancient Irish tradition called Samhain.
Samhain was a festival celebrated across Eire to mark the end of the harvest period, and the beginning of the darker half of the year. As a result, the Irish would make bonfires and take part in rituals on the night of October 31. These events were said to connect the spiritual world with the real world for a short moment in time.
Evil spirits were believed to roam around, and only incantations and strange rituals could prevent them from doing harm. People would actually get disguised to try and fool these spirits into leaving them alone. And the “trick or treating” that our children take part in today is similar to the Irish children of yesteryear dressing up and going door-to-door to gather gifts, fuel for fires, and food that would be contributed to the Samhain feasts.
During these feasts the souls of loved ones and friends who’d passed away would be invited to join in the festivities, with a place being set at the table for them.
Along with the joyous feasting, friends might play pranks on each other and blame them on the evil spirits that were roaming around.
The Church in Ireland Christianized the festival in around the 19th century, but the pranks and the door-to-door collections remained an integral part of the event. And turnips rather than pumpkins would be used to make the jack-o-lanterns we so commonly associate with Halloween.
The Irish tradition arrives in America
While in America Halloween wasn’t approved of by the more Puritanical society, when the Irish potato famine hit in the 1840s, millions of Irish turned up in America and brought with them their love of Halloween.
Over time the pranks became tamer, the costumes more elaborate, and the pumpkin became the vegetable of choice for carving lanterns. A tradition called “souling” and baking “soul cakes” in honor of the faithful in various cultures of Europe was also an influence in America, and came from various cultures in Europe.
Today Halloween has become more commercialized, and the notion of celebrating the end of the harvest period has more or less been ignored. However, what is proving popular among Catholic families is to use the occasion to dress their kids up as favorite saints, or even popes, to go off trick or treating.
Thankfully, in the Catholic Church we are also able to celebrate All Soul’s Day around this time of year, and it provides us with the perfect opportunity to commemorate our faithfully departed.