Halloween, a corruption of All-Hallows’ Eve, is a glorious gallimaufry of pagan and Christian traditions. Straddling the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, October 31st heralded for the Celts the end of the harvest season and the start of winter, marked by one of their most important festivals, Samhain.

An occasion for much feasting and drinking, and lasting for several days, it was also the time to prepare for the winter ahead. Grains, fruits, and vegetables crops were made safe, animals slaughtered, and their meat preserved. The bones were burnt on large fires, a custom that gave rise to our word “bonfire”.

On a more spiritual level, Samhain was the point at which the dividing line between the living and the dead was at its most nebulous. Ghosts of dead family members would return to make a visit and in anticipation, the living would leave plates of their favourite foods for them to enjoy. However, there was no telling who might visit.

Revellers would wear elaborate costumes and daub their faces with ashes from the fire to reduce the possibility of being recognised by the spirit of someone whose enmity they had earned. It was also a time for pranks and mischief, supposedly attributable to the elves, fairies, and sprites, convenient scapegoats for high-spirited revellers.

The Roman festival of Lemuria was dedicated to placating the angry and restless dead with a form of exorcism in which, according to Ovid, (Fasti V, 422ff), the head of the household walked barefoot around the house at midnight throwing beans over his shoulder and ordering the malevolent spirits to depart. On behalf of the city the Vestal Virgins prepared a salted flour cake, mola salsa, using sacred water and the first ears of the season’s wheat harvest mixed with grounded salt to propitiate the spirits.

The final day of the festival, May 13th, was also the date Pope Boniface IV chose, in the early 7th century, for a feast day to commemorate all the church’s martyrs, All Martyrs’ Day. A century or so later Pope Gregory III expanded it to include all saints. Whether he moved what was now known as All Saints’ Day to November 1st is unclear, but, according to the Venerable Bede, churches in England, Ireland, and Germany were soon celebrating the festival, known as All-Hallows’, on that date.

The following day, November 2nd was dedicated in the liturgical calendar for the commemoration of the souls of the departed, All Souls’ Day. Graves were visited, candles and bonfires lit, parades were held with revellers dressed as saints, angels, and devils, and on the night of All Saints’ Day church bells were rung for the souls in purgatory to enjoy.


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