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Halloween When Dead Souls Roam Among the Living

Date Posted: 2000-10-27

Originally, a pagan festival of the dead, which has survived to the present in popular culture as Halloween, a night of trick-or-treating by children and others dressed in costumes of fantasy and the supernatural. All Hallows Eve is observed the night of October 31, followed on November 1 by All Hallows Day, also called All Hallowmas, All Saints' Day and All Soul's Day. The ancient Celts called the festival Samhain (pronounced sow' an) and observed it to celebrate the onset of winter and the beginning of the Celtic New Year; "samhain" means "end of summer." In Ireland the festival was known as Samhein, or La Samon, the Feast of the Sun. In Scotland, the celebration was known as Hallowe'en. Samhain was a solar festival marked by sacred fire and fire rituals. During the height of the Druids, the priestly caste of the Celts, who occupied the British Isles before Roman times, all fires except those of the Druids were extinguished on Samhain. Householders were levied a fee for the holy fire which burned at their altars.

In ancient Ireland, the Druids scarificed to the deities by burning victims in wickerwork cages. All other fires were to be extinguished and were relit from the sacrificial fire. Samhain marked the third and final harvest, and the storage of provisions for the winter. The veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was believed to be at its thinnest point in the year, making communication between the living and the dead much easier. On the eve of the holiday, the souls of the dead freely roamed the land of the living.

The Romans observed the holiday of Feralia, intended to give rest and peace to the departed. Participants made sacrifices in honor of the dead, offered up prayers for them, and made oblations to them. The festival was celebrated on February 21, the end of the Roman year. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV introduced All Saints' Day to replace the pagan festival of the dead. It was observed on May 13. Later, Gregory III changed the date to November 1. The Greek Orthodox Church observes it on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

Numerous folk customs connected with the pagan observances for the dead have survived to the present. In addition to the souls of the dead roaming about, the Devil, witches and numerous spirits are believed to be out and at the peak of their supernatural powers. In Ireland and Scotland, the custom of extinguishing one's home fire and relighting if from the festival bonfire has continued into modern times.

Samhain, as it is still called in some parts, is a time for getting rid of weakness, as pagans once slaughtered weak animals which were unlikely to survive the winter. A common ritual calls for writing down weaknesses on a piece of paper or parchment, and tossing it into the fire. Cakes are baked as offerings for the souls of the dead.

In some parts of modern Scotland, young people still celebrate by building bonfires on hilltops and high ground, and then dance around the flames. The fire is known as Hallowe'en bleeze, and custom once included digging a circular trench around the fire to symbolize the sun.

The custom of trick or treating probably has several origins. An old Irish peasant practice called for going door to door to collect money, breadcake, cheese, eggs, butter, nuts, apples, etc., in preparation for the festival of St. Columb Kill. Another was the begging for soul cakes, or offerings for one's self-particularly in exchange for promises of prosperity or protection against bad luck.

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