Halloween, one of my favorite holidays, will soon be here, and I thought it might be interesting to explore the traditions surrounding this fascinating day, whose origins are over two thousand years old.
Halloween, also known as all Hallowmass or All Hallows Eve, is the day before All Hallows Day (All Saints Day). Most Halloween festivities are based on folk beliefs concerning supernatural forces and spirits of the dead. Halloween customs began with the Celts — a tribal people who inhabited most of Western and Central Europe over 2000 years ago — and a festival they called Samhain. Pronounced “sow’ an” and literally meaning “end of summer,” Samhain marked the end of the old year, start of winter and also a sort of thanksgiving day, commemorating the year’s harvest. In Scotland, the festival was called Hallowe’en.
Samhain was also a festival for honoring the dead. It began at sundown on October 31 and lasted into the next day. Samhain was a night to be feared, because the Celts believed that turning points (such as a change of season) were magical times, and Samhain was the greatest turning point — one year ending as another was beginning. On Samhain, the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest, and the living could communicate with their dead ancestors, and the dead were allowed to wander the earth. Samhain was a night evil spirits were out and about, and at their most powerful.
The Celtic Pagan religion was called Druidism, and to combat the spirits and protect themselves, the Druid priests used fire rituals. These bonfires were used to attract the dead and to keep them away from the home. (This may have been one of the origins of Jack O’ Lanterns.)
Many aspects of the Celtic festival of the dead eventually were absorbed into Christian culture after the Romans conquered the Celts. The Roman Catholic Church often modified Pagan religious traditions in order to win converts. In the 9th century, the Church changed All Saints Day — a day for remembering Christians who had died for their beliefs — from May 13 to November 1, to Christianize October 31 from Samhain into All Hallows Eve. (This was very much like the way the Church decided upon December 25 as the date for Christmas; it was the same day as Saturnalia, the Pagan “feast of the unconquered sun.”) Today, All Saints Day is still a holy day in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
Moving closer to our century, we find that here in the States in the 1600’s, the strict English Puritans rejected Halloween as a Catholic and Pagan holiday. Back then, witches and demons were greatly feared, and that fear led to a dark episode in New England history: The Salem Witch trials, when hysteria gripped the town of Salem and twenty innocent people were accused of being witches and consorting with the devil. These people were given show trials, and summarily executed.
While these innocents were not witches, it is important to point out that witches do not worship the devil, and that witches do not have any all-evil deity in their religious structure. In fact, the Wicca religion is one of harmony, life, balance, and peace. Wiccans believe that the earth and all living things share the same life force, composed of patterns of intelligence, of knowledge, and of divinity. All life is connected. There is a deep reverence for nature and animals. Even their greeting/blessing, “Blessed be,” is very similar to the Christian, “Amen.”
Today, Halloween is celebrated in various ways, but still reminiscent of the ancient Celtic rituals. In Scotland, people build bonfires called the “Hallowe’en blaze” and dance around the flames. In France, parts of Europe and Latin America, Halloween is a time for celebrating the fall harvest and honoring deceased loved ones. In Mexico, it’s called The Day of the Dead, and is a day for decorating the home with human skeletons, leaving food offerings for wandering spirits, and tending the graves of deceased relatives. And of course, here in the States, we celebrate with trick-or-treat, pumpkins, ghost stories, parties, haunted houses and costumes.
But the above history only answers some of the questions. What about the other customs associated with that night? Why do kids trick-or-treat? Why do we dress up? What’s the deal with pumpkins and apples?
Let’s start with pumpkins. But first we need to switch gears from actual history to fantasy. Also called a Jack O’Lantern, carved pumpkins are named (as legend has it) after a gentleman named Jack. The story goes that Jack was a drunk and rabble-rouser. One Halloween, the devil came for him, but Jack was able to outsmart the devil, and in the process forced the devil to relinquish all claims on Jack’s soul. But when Jack finally died, he was denied entrance into Heaven because of his sins. The devil was still smarting from all of Jacks tricks, and denied him access to Hell, giving Jack only a piece of coal to find his way through the nether world of limbo. Jack lit the coal and placed it into the turnip, and used the lantern to find his way. The story goes that poor Jack still wanders the Earth with his lantern, trying to find a place to rest.
Closer to actual history, using pumpkins as Halloween decorations is a custom that came from the Irish and Scottish who used carved out turnips or beets as lanterns. On Halloween, these lights represented the souls of the dead. When the Celtic folk came to America, there weren’t a lot of turnips, but plenty of pumpkins for carving.
How about bobbing for apples? Well, in Britain, Romans combined Samhain customs with their own Pagan harvest festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruit trees, and this may or may not be where we got the custom of bobbing for apples at Halloween — association of the holiday with fruit. Another Celtic tradition held that in bobbing for apples, the first to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year.
Trick or treating has several origins. During Samhain, people would leave food and drink outside to placate the wandering spirits. There was also the old Irish peasant practice of going from door to door to collect money and food in preparation for the festival of St. Columb Kill. Over time, people began dressing as these evil spirits and performing antics in exchange for the food and drink — much like children do today, dressing up as “evil spirits” and going door to door, begging for treats, and promising tricks if the offering isn’t given.
Samhain is still celebrated today by Pagans and Wiccans; their new year is a time to gather to celebrate with family and friends. For them, it is a powerful magical time, a time to reflect on their lives and pray for a future of balance, harmony, joy and health, and to ponder the mysteries of the Otherworld, and honor those who have passed on.
So as you can see, Halloween (Samhain) is a fascinating holiday with a rich history, with many traditions that have endured through the centuries, a day that has spawned tragedy and confusion, and ultimately evolved into a day whose early rituals are still celebrated in many different forms today, be it honoring saints and praying for departed souls, commemorating a new year, reflection, or a night of trick-or-treat and costume parties. However you celebrate October 31, enjoy yourself. Happy Halloween! Blessed be!