The Celtic peoples celebrated the change of seasons with festivals each quarter of the year. Their New Year began on what corresponds to November 1st in our calendar. It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the year. The ceremonies and traditions of offerings and bonfires honored the souls of those who had died during the past year, and helped them on their journeys to the otherworld. They also served to protect the living from the ghosts and demons that supposedly wandered about on that day.
The history of Halloween, as is true of many of our holidays is mingled with early Christian influences. Pope Gregory the First issued a famous edict in 601 A.D., outlining how he wanted his missionaries to deal with the native beliefs and customs of the Celtic people he hoped to convert. Rather than eradicating the pagan customs and festivals, the pope wanted his missionaries to make use of them. Christian holy days were scheduled to roughly coincide with Celtic holidays, and the people were encouraged to dedicate them to Christ.
November 1st became All Saints Day, and honored every Christian saint. All Hallow's Eve, October 31st, became Halloween, and never fully lost the Celtic connection with ghosts, goblins, and other otherworldly beings who could bring harm to the living.
Trick-or-Treating is a tradition found throughout the world that dates back to the Middgle Ages. People in costume would go door to door begging treats ("soul cakes") in exchange for for prayers for the dead on All Soul's Day (Novemeber 2nd).
Our celebrations of Halloween today have lost the emphasis on praying for the dead, and become a celebration of the macabre and phantasmagorical. The fun of dressing up like someone or something else has become the emphasis for this holiday. Yet there are cultures that continue to honor the dead at this time of day.
Here in New Mexico Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated by many. This tradition has strong roots in Mexico, where it is a national holiday, and can be traced back to indigenous cultures where honoring the death of ancestors has been practiced for thousands of years.
Families and friends gather to remember loved ones who have died, building altars in their homes as well as in graveyards with offerings of food and flowers. Although we usually associate the loss of loved ones with grief and solemnity, the Day of the Dead is a festive celebration, usually with lots of music, flowers (marigolds are traditional), and humor. Skeletons are popular figures, and traditional artwork shows them in everyday activities, but especially playing music.
However you choose to celebrate Halloween, I hope you have a fun time.
Nurturing Creativity, One Stamp at a Time!
aka The Mad Stamper
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