There are many theories as to the origins of Halloween and celebrating this holiday is certainly one of the oldest traditions in the Western world. Some trace it back to the time of the Roman Empire and the feast of Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruits and seeds), and the festival of the dead called Parentalia.
According to historians, Halloween springs from the old Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced as “sow-in”), which in Old Irish means “summer’s end”. This festival was held every year on the evening of October 31st. The Celts celebrated New Year on November 1st, which was the day that marked the end of summer and plenty, and the start of the dark, cold and unforgiving winter that each year claimed many lives. They also believed that at this time of the year, the barrier between the physical and supernatural (metaphysical) worlds was thinnest, and that contact between the two was therefore possible.
On the night of October 31st, the Druids (Celtic priests) built large, sacred bonfires where crops and animals were sacrificed to appease the gods and bring a mild winter. The people would attend this celebration dressed up in costumes, which mainly consisted of wearing animal skins. It was also believed that the closeness of the spirit world on this night made it possible for the Druids to see the future and predict whether the winter would be a devastating one or not. After the celebrations ended, people would relight their hearth fires, which they had extinguished before the start of the festival, from the sacred bonfire.
Later, in the eighth century AD, Pope Gregory III named November 1 as All Saints’ Day. As such, it became the day on which all saints and martyrs of the Catholic faith, known and unknown, were remembered and honored. This holiday incorporated many of the traditions of Samhain and the evening before it, became known as All Hallows’ Eve, later becoming Halloween.
All Saints Day is celebrated as a holiday in most Catholic countries, as is November 2nd, which is known as All Souls Day. In many former Communist countries, where religion was frowned upon, this day became known as the Day for Remembering the Dead. It is commemorated by lighting candles on the graves of deceased loved ones.
One thing that all these traditions that gave rise to the celebration of Halloween have in common, is death and dying, and the fear it still instills in people. During the month of November, autumn gives way to winter, and the long dark and cold days of the year begin.
Are the spirits closer on this night? I don’t know. But being born on November 1st, I have grown up very aware of these questions, as well as the mystery, mysticism, and superstition that surrounds this day. Some things don’t change, despite all the technological and other advances that out society has made in the last 2000 years, since the Celts and the Druids and their celebration of Samhian.
As I researched and wrote this post, I realized that a lot of this lore surrounding Halloween wound its way into the theme and world of my fantasy series, and especially Book 1 of it, Protector. I will not go into specifics here, as I do not want to give anything away, but suffice it to say that winter, and the death and subsequent rebirth it brings, plays a large and important role in it.