A Cross-Cultural Reflection on Halloween: The Origin of Halloween Casts Light Onto its Deeper Meaning

According to authors that track it back to Celtic lands only, it is a specifically Celtic festival. Others know that it evolved as a mixture of different festivals: the Roman celebrations of the Feralia and the festival of the fruit and trees goddess Pomona gave also their contributions to its shaping.

Roman Celebrations connected to Halloween

The Feralia were days of celebration of the passing of the dead, while Pomona was a harvest goddess. In the same way as the Celts, the Romans considered death and harvest as relating to each other.

As this connection becomes clear, it is easier to speculate on the underlying meaning of the Halloween theme.

What’s Behind a Halloween Mask?

The contemporary Halloween fascination and play with death is a transformation of the ancient reverence and awe towards the mystery of death and the dead ancestors.

Today, people who take part to Halloween parties and costume balls are actually engaging in a ritual activity of exorcism. Most adults who take part into the Halloween celebrations don’t think about it, but by being playful, they are actually exorcizing death and countering their natural fear of the unknown.

Celtic, Roman and … Catholic Halloween

The ancient Celtic and Roman ways of worship of the dead ancestors and the idea of easing their passage to the other dimension has left its remains in the Jack O’ Lantern. Everybody knows that the Halloween pumpkins are being lit in Great Britain and America on the last night of October.

What may be more surprising, however, is that something similar used to happen in Italy too, much before the American version of Halloween came back to Europe: back in the 1950s in a small rural village not far from Rome, children still used to carve and lit their pumpkins with a candle in the same night.

This is interesting, given the fact that it happened within a Catholic context: it sheds some light onto old widespread practices, which were very similar across different cultures. It also makes clear how Christianity reworked their meanings on a metaphorical level.

The Death – Harvest Connection

The last harvest of the year leads by its very definition to the theme of death, and the beginning of a new year in the darkness, according to the Celtic Samhain tradition.

At this point it is interesting to highlight how, in both Celtic and Roman cultures, death is connected with harvest, something which the Church picked up and played upon. In a Christian sense what used to be seen as an alternation of death and rebirth, in a natural cycle, became the ultimate harvest of one’s life. In this perspective, reflections about the rewards or punishments to be reaped at the end of one’s life were not too far-fetched.

Thus the institution of All Saints’ Day was not a way of replacing and erasing pagan practices altogether, but rather of giving them a new meaning, by bringing together the idea of death, heavenly rewards and the saints’ example.

Reflecting on the meaning and function that Halloween (and its predecessors) performed in society can bring about an evident perception that there is no need for stigmatization on one side, or a critical absorption on the other. Halloween is what people decide to make of it, while maintaining a strong connection between the living and the dead.

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