As October draws closer, much of the world will begin getting ready to celebrate one of the best known, and best-loved, festivals across the globe, Halloween. Although a Christian festival, this iconic event has varied throughout history and geography, incorporating local customs and traditions of the different peoples of the world. The Halloween that most of us know and love is a commemoration of the eve of the Western Christian festival of All Saints' Day (or All Hallows' Day), a day to celebrate those of us who have departed and joined the Kingdom of God in heaven, aka, the Church Triumphant, and their connection to Christians still present on Earth, aka the Church Militant. Traditionally, All Saints' Day falls on the day just before All Souls' Day, a day of remembrance for the Church Penitent, the departed whose souls are in Purgatory, with the result that the two days are frequently celebrated together by Christians in many, but not all, countries.
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Remembering, celebrating, and honouring the dead, however, is not a practice that is unique among the Christians. In fact, most peoples and cultures have always had their own ways of celebrating the memory of their ancestors, and many of these practices have found their way into modern Christianity. In fact, it is widely believed that modern Halloween liturgical practices have their root in the Celtic festival of Samhain. Samhain, traditionally celebrated from the 31st of October to the 1st of November, was a harvest festival, the celebrations of which often involved putting on plays and travelling door to door in costumes and playing pranks, predecessors of modern trick or treating. These customs, which are essentially secular, found their way into Christian celebrations of All Saints' Day by the 9th century AD. In fact, All Saints' Day was originally celebrated on the 13th of May, but this was changed in the year 835 AD at the behest of Pope Gregory IV, in all likelihood to reflect the fact that it was already being celebrated on November 1 in England and Germany, who had borrowed many elements of Samhain. Some scholars have hypothesized that the Christianization of these places did not entirely replace the power that ancient gods and spirits held.
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The Christian practice of Halloween, like many other Christian festivals, originated from the tradition of holding a vigil on the eve of a festival. All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, is thus a celebration of saints in heaven and recently departed souls of loved ones. The original date for Halloween, 13th of May, was likely taken from Lemuria, a Roman festival that commemorated the departed, albeit with significantly less cheer than Halloween. The date may also have chosen with regard to Saint Ephrem celebration of All Saints' Day on that date in the 4th century. At any rate, by the 12th century, All Hallows' Day had become a holy day of obligation, with the faithful expected to attend mass and participate in wholesale liturgical practices. Soon, children were going door to door collecting soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead, likely the immediate predecessor of trick or treating. As for the Christian basis for wearing costumes, it can be hard to say where this tradition came from, although it has been suggested that the souls of the dead wandered Earth seeking vengeance against their enemies and that the costumes were worn as disguises to avoid such vengeful spirits.
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Before too long, liturgical and popular practices associated with the festival began taking different forms in different cultures. In England, the protestant reformation made several theological points, mostly those relating to purgatory, inconsistent with the new beliefs professed by the English. This, and the rise in popularity of Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November, came to overshadow Halloween in many parts of England, although Scotland and Ireland continued to celebrate the festival with as much pomp as ever. Meanwhile, across the Channel, different countries adopted different ways of remembering their departed. Christian families in France began to pray beside the graves of their loved ones, setting down dishes full of milk for them. In Italy, families prepared large meals for their departed loved ones before leaving for the Church service, and in Spain, special pastries called "bones of the holy" were prepared and left in the church graveyard, and still are today!
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Interestingly, in the United States, where Halloween is ubiquitous today and often a secular celebration, it did not actually catch on until the 19th century. The puritans were deeply opposed to the practice, and protestant opposition from England found its way into North America with the colonists. Large scale immigration from Scotland and Ireland, however, gradually changed this opposition into acceptance and then widespread favour, making it, next to Christmas, the most popular holiday today.
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Further south, in Mexico, the story of Halloween bears some similarities with Scotland and Ireland. The native Aztecs of Mexico had long celebrated a festival in honour of their Goddess of the underworld, Mictēcacihuātl. This celebration soon began to merge with Catholicism to give rise to the modern Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, festival. Although initially restricted to the south of the country, where the Aztecs were based, in the latter half of the 20th century, the custom has spread across the country and received official patronage from the government, contributing to its contemporary popularity. The festival is characterized by classic elements of Halloween, but also endemic practices like writing Calaveras, short, often humorous poems and the distinct art and sugar skulls associated with the Day of the Dead. Throughout much of Latin America, in fact, Halloween has merged with indigenous practices to create festivals of the dead.
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In China and India, the impact of Christianity has been a lot more limited than in the other cultures discussed with the result that these places do not celebrate Halloween in large numbers, but their own festivals of the dead. The Chinese celebrate "Hungry Ghost" festival in mid-July, floating river lanterns in remembrance, whereas in India, Priti Paksha is a fifteen-day period at the end of September when Hindus venerate their ancestors. Japanese Buddhists have a similar Bon festival, when families return to their ancestral homes and clean and decorate graves of their forebears.
Venerating the dead is a practice that is practically universal among humans. In fact, practices of burying, honouring and respecting the departed is a practice almost as old as humanity, predating even agriculture. Halloween is merely the most popular (and arguably among the most fun) in a long and diverse tradition of human beings looking back to give thanks, for the struggles, hardships, and hardwon victories of our antecedents, who have made it possible for us to be where we are today. After all, like a very intelligent man once noted, they are the giants whose shoulders we stand on today.