Halloween is an annual celebration, but just what is it actually a celebration of? And how did this peculiar custom originate? Is it, as some claim, a kind of demon worship? Or is it just a harmless vestige of some ancient pagan ritual?
The British tend to think of Halloween as a predominantly American tradition, complete with Jack O’Lanterns, trick-or-treating and the wearing of outrageous witch and goblin costumes, but the holiday has its roots in Celtic Ireland. The Jack O’Lantern, the carved-out pumpkin with a lit candle placed inside, is actually an Irish tradition, based on the legend of a man called Jack who made a pact with the devil.
The word itself, "Halloween," actually has its origins in the Catholic Church. It comes from a contracted corruption of All Hallows Eve. November 1, "All Hallows Day" (or "All Saints Day"), is a Catholic day of observance in honour of saints. But, in the 5th century BC, in Celtic Ireland, summer officially ended on October 31. The holiday was called Samhain (sow-en), the Celtic New year
One story says that, on that day, the disembodied spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. It was believed to be their only hope for the afterlife. The Celts believed all laws of space and time were suspended during this time, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living.
Naturally, the still-living did not want to be possessed. So on the night of October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable. They would then dress up in all manner of ghoulish costumes and noisily paraded around the neighbourhood, being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess.
Probably a better explanation of why the Celts extinguished their fires was not to discourage spirit possession, but so that all the Celtic tribes could relight their fires from a common source, the Druidic fire that was kept burning in the Middle of Ireland, at Usinach. To celebrate Samhain the Druids built huge sacred bonfires. People came together to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. During the celebration the Celts wore costumes - usually animal heads and skins. They would also try and tell each other's fortunes. After the festival they re-lit the fires in their homes from the sacred bonfire to help protect them, as well as keep them warm during the winter months.
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