Halloween and other autumn festivals: Origins and customs

By: Julia Sikorski Roehsner

Halloween. Also known as All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve, this popular holiday is celebrated annually on October 31st. Festivities include dressing up in costumes, trick-or-treating, hosting parties, and carving pumpkins.

Most people know what it is. But does everyone know its roots?

Halloween originates from the Celtic Samhain festival. The festival was a way for the Celts to celebrate a new year, marking the beginning of the winter season. They believed that the souls of the dead returned to visit the living.

The Celts would build large bonfires to sacrifice animals and harvest to their deities, and to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes they would don costumes or masks – both often made of animal components – to avoid recognition by ghosts. Prophecy was also an important event.

After the Romans conquered the Celts, they wove into Samhain their own festival of Feralia. This was meant to commemorate those who had passed away, as well as honor the Roman goddess of harvest and fruit trees, Pomona.

All Saints’ Day was introduced into the mix by Pope Boniface IV, and was a festival to honor Christian saints and martyrs. It was originally established on May 13, but was later moved to November 1st. The day before was made All Hallows’ Eve, and the day after made All Souls’ Day (a celebration similar to Samhain).

All Hallows’ Eve eventually evolved to become today’s Halloween.

Due to strict, colonial Protestant beliefs in New England, Halloween might not have gained traction in the United States if it weren’t for immigration. In the mid 1800s, large numbers of immigrants journeyed to America, including those from Ireland seeking refuge from the Irish Potato Famine. With them came their Halloween traditions.

By the 20th century, Halloween was a popular national holiday in the US.

Today, hearing “Trick or treat!” on the night of October 31st is common in countries such as Ireland and Canada, and of course the United States. However, Halloween isn’t a central autumnal holiday all across the world.

Día de los Muertos originated in Mexico, and is celebrated there and across Latin America. Translated as the Day of the Dead, this annual holiday also begins on October 31st, but lasts until November 2nd. It has ties to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican rituals, where food and supplies were provided by family members to help the dead reach their final resting place, Mictlán.

Similarly, today’s Día de los Muertos is meant to honor the dead, who are believed to return to the world of the living during the holiday. Common activities include building ofrendas (decorated altars for the dead), tidying and visiting gravesites, and dancing.

Another mid-autumn holiday is Guy Fawkes Day, primarily celebrated in Great Britain. Other names include Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night. It occurs every year on November 5th. The day is meant to commemorate Guy Fawkes’ failed assasination attempt on King James I in 1605. Fawkes was caught and executed for high treason, and the English lit bonfires to celebrate the survival of their king.

The modern holiday involves setting off fireworks, lighting bonfires, burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, and attending parades.

The celebrations of Halloween, Día de los Muertos, and Guy Fawkes Day help people around the world say goodbye to the dying days of October, and welcome in the last months of the year.

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