Happy Halloween! Here we are, almost at the end of October already, and I know many of you must be wondering how this holiday actually came about. The good news for you is that I am going to talk about that very subject today.
It all started with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sah-ween). It was the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice and was usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1.
At Samhain, the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to humankind, and the gods played many tricks on their mortal worshippers; it was a time fraught with danger, charged with fear, and full of supernatural episodes. Sacrifices and reparations of every kind were thought to be vital, for without them the Celts believed they could not prevail over the perils of the season or counteract the activities of the deities.
During this time, hearth fires were left to burn out while the harvest was gathered. After the harvesting was complete, celebrants joined the Druid priests to light a community fire, cattle were sacrificed and participants took a flame from the communal fire back to their own home to relight the hearth.
Because the Celts believed that the barrier between worlds was breachable during Samhain, offerings were left outside villages and fields. Tricks and pranks were often played but were blamed on fairies and spirits.
It was expected that ancestors might cross over during this time, as well, and Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that fairies were not tempted to kidnap them. Carved turnips called jack-o-lanterns began to appear, attached by strings to sticks and embedded with coal. Later Irish tradition switched them to pumpkins.
And, of course, there was the dumb supper. It was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth during Samhain and, for the dumb supper, the celebrants invited their ancestors to join in, giving the families a chance to interact with the spirits until they left following dinner.
Children would play games to entertain the dead while the adults would update the dead on the past year’s news. That night, doors and windows might be left open for the dead to come in and eat cakes that had been left for them.
So, how did this ancient pagan celebration become what we know today as Halloween? As Christianity gained a foothold in pagan communities, church leaders attempted to reframe Samhain as a Christian celebration.
In the 9th century, Pope Gregory declared it as All Saint’s Day on November 1, that day was for honoring every Christian saint. All Souls’ Day would follow on November 2 when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead.
However, neither holiday did away with the pagan aspects of the celebration. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil, and they continued to appease those spirits by setting out gifts of food and drink.
All Hallow’s eve subsequently became Hallow Evening which then led to Hallowe’en. Many supernatural creatures became associated with All Hallows. In Ireland, fairies were numbered among the legendary creatures who roamed on Halloween. In old England, cakes were made for the wandering souls, and people went “a’ soulin'” for these “soul cakes.”
Halloween, a time of magic, also became a day of divination, with a host of magical beliefs: for instance, if a person holds a mirror on Halloween and walks backward down the stairs to the basement, the face that appears in the mirror will be their next lover. If I do try that, and don’t break my neck in the process, I’ll let you know what I saw. Particularly if it turns out to be Russell Crowe.
The modern-day Halloween traditions of wearing costumes and roaming door to door demanding treats can be traced to the Celtic period when it was thought that the souls of the dead were out and around, along with witches, fairies and demons. Offerings of food and drink were meant to placate them.
As time wore on, people began dressing like the scary creatures that they had been trying to appease and would perform antics in exchange for food and drink. That practice was called mumming and eventually evolved into trick or treating.
Even some of the most mundane customs derive from Samhain. Bobbing for apples and carving pumpkins, as well as the spiced cider of the day, all began with the original harvest holiday of Samhain.
Who doesn’t get a little chill along their spine when they hear a strange noise on a dark, spooky Halloween night? Somehow, I think those old customs are hard-wired in our brains, because I know of no other night all year long when I most expect one of those ghosts or ghouls to cross through the veil and appear before me. How about you?
Happy Halloween and thanks for joining me.