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How Samhain Became All Saints Day

Halloween has become a significant part of modern American culture.

However, the first settlers in this country actually opposed the holiday. Protestants were strongly against to the “pagan” celebration.

Eventually, Irish Catholic immigrants brought their traditions to America and celebrated them in their ethnic communities.

Halloween was gradually absorbed into mainstream society, but what was the original meaning and purpose?

Samhain began as Irish Gaelic festival, symbolizing the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter (the  “darker half” of the year).

The four Gaelic seasonal festivals are Samhain (November 1), Imbolc (February 1), Beltane (May 1), and Lughnasadh (August 1).

Each occurs on cross quarter days, which occur halfway between each solstice and equinox.

Samhain was celebrated on October 31st, the day halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice.

The celebration is referred to in ancient Irish literature. Many important Irish mythological events occurred during Samhain.

Mythology also suggests that drinking alcohol was a significant part of the feast, and most tales involves drunkenness.

During the festival, cattle were brought back from the summer pastures and livestock slaughtered for the people to survive the winter.

This tradition is still practiced by many farmers because the summer grass has died and it is now cold enough that the meat can be frozen and preserved.

In the ancient festivals, people and their livestock would walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames.

Samhain was also seen as a time when the spirits of the dead could come back into our world for one night.

Families held feasts and requested the spiritual presence of their ancestors, setting place set at the table for them.

During the reign of the German King Charlemagne, the festival spread throughout Catholic Europe.

All Saints Day was officially created in 835, by the decree of German King Louis the Pious, “at the instance of Pope Gregory IV, and with the assent of all the bishops”.

In medieval Ireland, the festival and its traditions continued as they had since ancient times.

“Trick-or-treating” can be traced back to the Catholic tradition of “Souling”.

Children went door to door, singing and saying prayers for their deceased relatives.

The women baked them “soul cakes”, deserts filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and raisins, and marked with a cross on top.

Each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory.

The tradition began in Ireland during the Middle Ages and spread as far south as Italy.

People throughout Europe attended mass, lit candles, and visited the graves of deceased relatives.

This is the purpose of Catholicism: to follow our ancestors and keep their traditions.

They are gone, but we revive them and make them relevant when we believe in their ideas.

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