We love holidays of any sort and want to share the origins of all events. So today we are exploring what we know as Halloween!
Believe it or not, the origins of Halloween have a distinct Roman flavor. The explanation, however, requires a bit of explanation.
The month of Maius, for the Romans, was both a somber time and a laborious time. It was laborious in that this was a time for farmers to reap the fruits of their harvest.
If the proper deities were happy there was a somber mood for this particular month. So the rituals needed to keep harmony between man and the divine were critical.
The Romans learned this trait from the Greek god Hermes and ascribed it to Mercurius. Maia, however, was also known as Maia Maiestas (Maia the Majestic), associated with the Bona Dea and the fertility goddess.
This was why the month of May, as the end of winter and the beginning of spring, was given to her. May was the month of growth.
Then there was Lemuralia where the Lemures returned for only 3 particular days a year to threaten their descendants. They were restless, malevolent ghosts whose purpose was to torture the families they left behind.
In order to propitiate them, a ritual was enacted by the pater familias. At midnight, the pater familias would walk barefoot through his own house to rid the Lemures with this exorcism ritual.
Holding his hand upheld in what was referred to as a fig gesture (placing the thumb between the 2nd and 3rd fingers) and filling his mouth with dried black beans, he would make the circuit around his house spitting the beans onto the floor in order to bait the ghosts.
As he walked and spit out a bean, he would recite 9 times the incantation cum hīs redimō ipsum atque familiam meam (with these I redeem myself and mine).
When the Lemures came out to eat the beans, the rest of the household would clash bronze together, like cymbals, and proclaim manes paternī exite (ghosts of my fathers and ancestors be gone)!
Lemuralia was practiced on May 9, 11 and 13, and seen as unlucky days. Around the 8th Century AD the Lemuralia faded away in popularity and practice.
The day we know as Halloween originated with Samhain, the pagan Celtic celebration of the dead and the New Year. This celebration evolved as Julius Caesar, and succeeding Roman leaders, conquered Celtic lands in northern Europe and Britannia in the first centuries BC through 43 AD.
Samhain was the end of the harvest season for the Celts, and one of the principle festivals for their culture. It was their New Year’s Day.
As the harvest ended, the Celts tended to gather up all their crops and livestock and have a single large feast as they headed into winter. This final harvest falls on October 31st, and the name for Halloween in Gaelic is Oíche/Oidhche Shamhna.
On this day, the Celts believed that those who died during the year returned. So the festival of Samhain was a way to help the dead on their journey to the otherworld.
Because this particular day the Celts believed the dead were more likely to mingle with the living, a place for the dead was set at their feasts in order to honor them. This also meant that Samhain, with all the dead returning to visit, was a time for clearer omens and prophecy.
Feralia was held 21 February, aka the last day of the Roman year according to the Julian calendar, as the last of the 3 Roman festivals honoring the dead. On this day temples would be opened at noon, and the time of religious devotion, the tempus religiosum, came to a close. Magistrates would lay down their insignia of office and offer up prayers on behalf of the State.
Republican calendars are marked with FP for this day, but after Augustus they are marked simply F, for fastus. The mysterious meaning of FP may have its roots in the observance of the Feralia as a fastus (or feria) publicus during the Res Publica Romana. Because the actual rites involved in the observance of the Feralia can only be guessed at, we do not know why this change was made.
Romans also observed a day in honor of Pomona, their goddess of fruit and trees. The apple, the symbol of Pomona, was soon incorporated into the celebrations of Samhain, and early practices derived the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is a staple of Halloween today.
The Romans made it a habit of adopting cultures and celebrations of the people it incorporated into Roman provinciae and, eventually, the Imperium Rōmānum. By 43 AD, the Exercitus Romanus had conquered the majority of Celtic territory.
So basically the Romans combined all those previously described festivals into the Celt’s Samhain, especially in Gallia and Britannia.
When Christian missionaries undertook the task of changing the religious practices of the Celtic people, Samhain was gradually transformed into the modern celebration of Halloween. During the early centuries of the First Millennium, before the time of such missionaries as Patricius and Saint Columcille converted the Celts to Christianity, they practiced an elaborate religion through their priestly caste known as the Druids.
As a result of Christian efforts to eliminate pagan holidays, like Samhain, the Church succeeded in bringing about major transformations to Celtic festivals. In 601 AD, Pope Gregory I issued a now famous edict to his missionaries regarding the native beliefs and customs of those peoples he hoped to convert.
Rather than attempting to obliterate the customs and beliefs of native races, Pope Gregory instructed his missionaries to employ such traditions. For example, if a certain group worshipped a tree, then rather than cut that tree down, the Papa advised that it be consecrated to Christ and its worship be allowed to continue.
In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and became a basic approach used in the work of Catholic missionaries. Church holy days were set to purposely coincide with native festivals.
For instance, Christmas was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25 because it corresponded with the Mid-Winter celebration of many cults. In the same manner, Saint John’s Day was set to take place on the Summer Solstice.
With its emphasis squarely upon the supernatural however, Samhain was decidedly pagan. While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, the earlier religion’s unearthly deities were branded as evil and said to be associated with the devil.
Representative of the Church’s rival religion, Druids were declared evil worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits. Inevitably, the Underworld of the Celts became identified with Christianity’s concept of Hell.
Although this policy diminished beliefs in the traditional Celtic deities, it could not completely eradicate such ideas. Celtic belief in creatures of the supernatural continued to persist and the Church instituted deliberate attempts to define those who followed the old ways as being not merely dangerous, but also malicious until such people were forced to go into hiding and eventually branded as witches.
As Samhain was celebrated on October 31, the day before All Saints’ Day, the day became known as All Hallows Eve. Later, the term was made into the contraction, Halloween.
The Christian feast of All Saints, otherwise known as Hallowmas (“hallowed” being defined as “holy” or “sanctified”), continued the ancient Celtic traditions and was assigned to November 1. The day honored every known Christian Saint and particularly those who did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them.
The evening prior to All Saints’ Day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the paranormal beings were now thought of as evil.
Folk continued to propitiate those spirits, and their masked impersonators, by setting out gifts of food and drink. The traditional black and orange associated with Halloween also have their roots in the ancient festival of Samhain. Black represented the time of darkness after the death of the god and orange was for awaiting the dawn of his rebirth at Yule.
The ancient beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was far too strong in the minds of believers, who failed to be satisfied with the new and more abstract Catholic feast which honored Saints.
Realizing that something would be needed in order to subsume the original energy of Samhain, the Church tried once more in the 9th Century to supplant it with another Christian feast day. On November 2, All Souls’ Day, a time when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead, was established.
An All Souls’ Day tradition was to go “a-souling,” where the poor would ask for food door to door, in exchange for praying for the souls of dead relatives to go to heaven. The church preferred this practice to those of the pagans.
The poor were given “soul cakes” for their prayers, or sometimes for a song and dance. Children would also often perform for food, ale, or money.
However, people soon began celebrating the saintly and non-saintly dead on November 1, Hallowmas/All Saints Day. Halloween then, in a roundabout way, is our culture’s way of paying homage to the dead as its origins.
Go out and enjoy today, and tomorrow, for the celebration whatever your religious beliefs may be. We hope you enjoyed learning the history of Halloween and how it came about.
Come back again tomorrow to see what we have in store for you. Maybe even an exploration into All Saints Day?
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Agomuoh, Fionna. Halloween History, Roman And Christian Influences.
Magister Ricard. The Roman Origins of Halloween.