The celebration of Halloween has become one of the most awaited appointments of October for some time now thanks to globalization and the important influence of American films. It's a controversial moment here in Italy, where the supporters of the festival face those who are against it, laying claim to their own traditions and going against consumerism. I may agree with the accusation of excessive consumerism, but as for traditions the matter is a bit more articulated. I can't say no to the whys of particular customs that come in my mind, so I did some researches, discovering interesting things that sometimes have little in common with the current feast.
In reality, Halloween comes from an ancient holiday celebrated by the Celts in Irland, Samhain. It was considered the Celtic new year's day. On the 31st of October they celebrated the end of the summer, of the time of richness, when they had worked to store for the winter, the period of the cold and the darkness (because of shorter days) and of the preparation of the soil for future plantations. Yes, the theme of the celebration was the death, but in relation with nature, which renovates underground anyway.
But on October 31st another thing happened, too: that barrier between the realm of the dead and that one of the living fell. This meant that for that night the dead could join the living in the celebration: a believe that, somehow, exorcised the fear of the death and of spirits joining it with the happiness of the festivities for the end of the year. In this occasion, people met in the clearings of woods or on hills to light the Holy Fire and offered sacrifices (not human ones). Then they came back to villages wearing grotesque masks lightened by lamps supplied by the embers of the Holy Fire. Here the tradition of disguising.
Always in Ireland, people left out of the door some lanterns and some food for the souls of the dead, so they could take refreshment without making trick to the living (here "trick or treat?"). That reminds me the Apulian tradition linked to the festival.
This happened before the appearance of Christianity and Samhain was converted in All Hallows’ day.
The first celebration of this holiday happened in Rome on the 13rd of May 609 A.D. for the consecration of the Pantheon to the Virgin Mary. I make you notice that the ancient Roman festival of the dead, Lemuria, was celebrated in May and when Romans went ashore on British islands and saw Samhain, they associated the two holidays.
So, why do we celebrate All Hallows’ day in November?
Because of the simple fact that traditions are hard to break! Also in Italy there was paganism and many areas were occupied by peoples from the North who, obviously, brought all their cultural heritage, too. Just think that in Apulia there are traditions and habits coming from Lombard and Norman customs, for example.
Not succeeding in eradicating Samhain, Cristianity substitutes it with the celebration of All Hallows' Day, on the first of November. But the celebration starts on the 31st, the eve, so All Hallows' Eve --> Halloween.
This is a general discourse about the festival. It goes without saying that each place has its own particular tradition. For example, in my town, Massafra, people say that on the night of the 31st of October the souls of the deas come back on the earth and walk along the main street of the historical centre and go in churches to celebrate the Mass of the dead.
I must be sincere: knowing the origins of this holiday makes me see it with different eyes.
And obviously there is food for this occasion, too. I leave here the link of an old blog post where I've proposed the recipe of two typical sweets of All Hallows' Day. If you know others, please share them!