All Hallows’ Eve – A Short History
All Hallows’ Eve
When we generally think about Halloween, we think about candy, costumes, tricks, and treats. However, beneath the guise of modern Halloween there is a ancient religious holiday that is observed throughout most of the Christian world: All Hallows’ Eve. All Hallows Eve, otherwise known as Halloween, marks the beginning of a special three day period known as the Allhallowtide, in which the living remember and perhaps even make communion with the dead. Today we are going to look more closely at All Hallows’ Eve, and how it has been observed in the past.
When did All Hallows’ Eve begin?
It is not quite certain when All Hallows’ Eve began. According to the BBC, many scholars believe All Hallows Eve is simply a modified form of Samhain, the Celtic New Year/end of harvest festival, and that it was devised as a means of assimilating Pagan practitioners into the Christian faith in as far back as the 6th century CE. Other scholars, however, believe that the celebration is a uniquely Christian holiday first inaugurated in the 8th century CE. Nonetheless, the transition period between the end of October and the beginning of November has long been seen as a holy time. Historian Steve Roud writes that during the transition period between October and November in the medieval Irish calendar, the physical (material) and the supernatural (afterlife) realms, were at their thinnest all year—thus ripe for religious holiday.
What is the specific purpose of All Hallows’ Eve?
Whereas the second day of Allhallowtide, All Saints’ Day, commemorates known and unknown saints and martyrs, and the third day, All Souls’ Day, commemorates the faithful Christian departed who rest in purgatory, All Hallows’ Eve unofficially exists to remember the departed, both those whom were Christian as well those whom were not. All Hallows’ Eve remained a night of respect. However, the ways in which this respect were shown greatly varied. In Brittany, celebrations on this night during the Middle Ages were solemn, consisting of praying for the unburied and dead, visiting family gravesites, and even preparing food and setting the table for the family’s departed to dine on during the night. For such practitioners, All Hallows’ Eve provided a time for the living to remember and commemorate their departed, and thus turn potential grieving into a source of familial unity.
However, in Ireland, England, and Scotland, All Hallows’ Eve took on a much merrier fashion—one similar to the largely-secular Halloween we all see today.
All Hallows’ Eve in Ireland, England, and Scotland
In these three countries, All Hallows’ Eve looked similar to the Halloween widely celebrated today. Children and the needy roamed the streets souling— begging at each door not for candy but rather soul cakes, a shortbread they would receive in exchange for promising to pray for that family’s departed. The current ritual of wearing Halloween costumes is believed to have evolved from the older belief that for this one day, the departed would come back to life and wander the streets. During the Middle Ages, costumed persons paraded around the street masked as spirits and the departed, asking for food and drink from bystanders—in the process disguising themselves from the real departed. As such, wearing a costume was not only a means of honoring the departed but also joining them. In a way, All Hallows Eve was a means of reveling in as well transcending the cycle of life and death, if only for one night.
Although the practice of All Hallows’ Eve has varied in the past and continues to do so today, it has and continues to play an important role in human society. It has allowed for family members to remember their departed and find solace, and it likewise has provided an opportunity for persons to dress up in costumes and celebrate the cycle of life and death. Regardless whether you are a religious practitioner or not, All Hallows’ Eve can be of high spiritual importance to you and your family, and for millions across the world, it has certainly remained worth observing.