Teaching with Stamps: Primary resources for teaching America’s history and heritage.


By @ 10/16/14 in Blog

0-0_USPS97STA009BMany, many centuries ago, Celtic folk were found all over Europe. They practiced many pagan customs and traditions that were designed to appease the inhabitants of the spirit world. Their most important holiday was known as Samhain (pronounced sah-ween), which fell on or around November 1st of our modern calendar. Samhain signified the end of summer and the beginning of winter, a time of harvest and a time when the Celts believed that the souls of those who had died in the past year would make their way to the otherworld.

Folks would gather on Samhain to celebrate the harvest. They would light bonfires to light the way for the traveling souls, and to keep evil soul spirits from touching the living people present.

1-0_USPS97STA009CAs they were wont to do, Christian missionaries worked hard to convert the Celts, and to eradicate their pagan customs. They tried to discredit the Celtic Druid priests as evil worshippers, and they cast the travelling souls of Samhain as demons. Rather than alienating their converts by wiping Samhain off the Celtic calendar, the missionaries chose to subsume it into All Saints Day and translate past pagan practices into Christian traditions. All Saints Day was also known as All Hallowed Day and the night before it was All Hallowed Evening.

Traditions die hard and the original Celtic custom of ushering the after-dead into their afterlife lived on. The evening before the holiday became known as Hallowed Evening, or Hallowe’en. It became as significant as the event itself, with people busily preparing gifts of food and drink to keep the spirits happy, lighting bonfires and donning costumes to keep evil spirits away, and visiting gravesites of deceased friends and family to wish their spirits safe journey into the afterlife.

2-0_USPS97STA009DThe masses of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century brought Hallowe’en to this country and nearly every Hallowe’en tradition we have is rooted in ancient Celtic culture.

Carving Pumpkins: A centuries old Irish legend relates the story of a blacksmith named Jack who colludes with the devil and is denied entry into heaven. Condemned to wander the earth in darkness, he takes a burning ember from the devil and places inside a hollowed turnip to light his way – hence Jack’s Lantern. To keep Jack’s evil spirit from darkening their doors, people placed candles inside carved turnips and potatoes and put them at their doorsteps. Irish and Scottish immigrants found pumpkins a plenty in America that were easier to hollow and carve than turnips and potatoes.

4-0_USPS97STA009FHallowe’en Costumes: Hallowe’en costumes date back to Celtic times to the garb worn by Druid priests on the night when the after-dead lingered among the living on their way to the otherworld. The Druids would disguise themselves as spirits and devils in case they encountered other devils and spirits in the night that might wish to carry the priests away. Thus the costumes of ghosts, witches and goblins evolved as the most popular Hallowe’en costumes.

Trick or Treat: In the Middle Ages, children and poor adults would go “souling”, which meant they would go house to house, offering prayers and songs for the souls of homeowners’ loved ones, in exchange for food or money. The Celtic people would often put out treats on the night of traveling souls, to keep spirits happy and away from their families.

3-0_USPS97STA009EDid you know?
  • The National Retail Federation anticipates Hallowe’en spending in 2014 to top $7.4 billion, with $2.8 billion spent on costumes; $1.4 billion on adults, $1.1 billion on children and $350 million on pets.
  • Scarecrows, a popular Hallowe’en costume, symbolize the ancient agricultural roots of the holiday.
  • Halloween celebrations in Hong Kong are known as Yue Lan or the “Festival of the Hungry Ghosts” during which fires are lit and food and gifts are offered to placate potentially angry ghosts who might be looking for revenge.
  • Fear of Hallowe’en in known as Samhainaphobia.
  • Hallowe’en is the second-highest grossing commercial holiday in America.