October 31st is a haunted holiday shrouded in many spellbinding traditions. Although the magic and mischief of Halloween has captivated young and old around the world, folklorists regard this day as the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented in the festival year. Most peoplebelieve the Halloween holiday began as anancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural. Indeed, Halloween does have religious connotations - although there is much disagreement among historians as to when and why it all started.
Some say Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, and in fact most evidence does support this claim. According to Celtic tradition, this day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark and frigid winter season. Celtics believed the barrier between the living and dead was at its most permeable during this harvest holiday. In addition to communicating beyond the grave, this phenomenon meant that ghosts of the dead could return to earth. To welcome these visiting spirits, Celts would make offerings of food and wore costumes typically consisting of animal heads and skins as a way to both honor and channel their Celtic deities otherworldy energy to tell fortunes and make predictions about the future.
Vincent Van Gogh, Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, (1886).
By the first century CE, most Celtic territory was conquered by the Roman Empire. The subsequent melting pot of cultures meant that rituals and festivals began to blend, culminating in new hybrid holidays. Samhain, for example, merged with the Roman festival of Pomona, a harvest-inspired feast believed to have taken place on November 1st. Though these harvest holidays would go on to last for centuries, they underwent dramatic changes in the 8th century. During this time, Pope Gregory III reinterpreted the Pagan festival as a series of Catholic holidays. Specifically, he declared November 1st, ‘All Saints’ Day,’ a holiday intended to honor “saints, martyrs, and confessors” in heaven, with October 31st serving as the preparatory All Hallows Eve, also called All-hallows or All-hallowma and, eventually, Halloween. This day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils.
No matter what tradition you are celebrating this Halloween - for centuries people have reveled in the fun and frightening festivities of Halloween and celebrated this day of spooky myths and magic in the arts; solidifying this holiday as an important one, in many different cultures.
Shawn Walker, Untitled (from the Halloween series), Harlem, New York, ca. 1960.