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The Ancient Origins of Halloween

Today, when we think of Halloween, we think of kids wearing costumes ringing doorbells and getting candy. We think of haunted houses and parties featuring spooky decorations and fun treats. But do you know how Halloween got started?

Halloween goes back some 2,000 years, and its origins have nothing to do with candy. It is actually based on the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-en). This festival marked the transition from summer to winter, which was also regarded as the Celtic New Year. It was also something of a festival of the dead, as Celts believed that spirits roamed the earth on that night.

Like the modern Halloween, Samhain was celebrated on October 31st. But the activities undertaken on that night were quite different from those in which we participate today. The Celtic priests, called Druids, would build huge bonfires, and the people of the community gathered around them, throwing in crops and animal sacrifices.

The Celts did wear costumes, which were initially made up of animal skins and heads, but later included masks designed to look like the faces of spirits. The purpose of the costume was to hide the wearer's identity from the spirits.

Legend has it that, on this night, the presence of spirits made it easier for the Druids to predict the future. There were also certain rituals that anyone could perform in an effort to predict certain things...

For instance, young, unmarried women were encouraged to place an apple under their pillows at bedtime so that they would dream of their future husbands. They would also comb their hair or eat an apple by candlelight while looking in a mirror in hopes that they would see the reflection of their future husband peeking over their shoulders.

The festival of Samhain was celebrated exclusively by the Celts. But when the Romans conquered most of their territory, Samhain was combined with two of the Romans' festivals.

One of the festivals was Feralia, which was also a festival of the dead. The other festival honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit, whose symbol was the apple. This is believed to be the origin of the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples.

The day after Halloween is currently known as All Saints' Day in most cultures. But in the days of Samhain, it was called All Hallows' Day. Eventually, the Romans began to call Samhain All Hallows' Eve. This was later shortened to the contraction “Hallow-e'en.” This was later simplified into today's spelling of Halloween.

The way we celebrate Halloween today is quite different from the way the Celts did it. Yet we can find traces of today's Halloween customs in those from ancient times. And by studying the holiday's origins, it's easy to see why Halloween is regarded as such a spooky and magical time.


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