Ever wondered where Halloween came from or why we continue to celebrate this creepy occasion??
With this most dark and devilish day fast approaching, I felt it was time to shed some light on the origins of Halloween. In doing so I hope to reveal just how important Halloween has been within our culture and why we’ve continued to feel the need to celebrate all things frightening, fiendish and freaky to this day.
A Pastoral People
As with so many of our ancient customs and traditions, the nature of Halloween is connected to our early efforts to influence and secure favorable agricultural and seasonal conditions by the use of magic ritual and sacrifice.
The first traces of the real history of Halloween can be found in a pre-Christian Celtic, ‘festival of the dead’. The ancient Celts (Gaels, Gauls, Britons, Irish and Gallations) called this festival “Samhain” (pronounced SAH-win, SOW-in or SAH-ween), and it was by far, their most important event of the year.
The term Samhain comes from the Old Irish, meaning, “summer’s end”. It was literally the recognition of the end of the harvest period and beginning of winter, or the ‘darker half’ of the year. In combination with this, it was also the start of our medieval calendar year. Therefore it was seen as both a beginning and an end.
With Celtic way of life so closely linked with farming, livestock and the influence of the seasons, measures were taken to ensure the safety and survival of animals and newly harvested crops. Stock was brought into closer, secure pastures and the summer yield was stored for the coming winter months.
During this most significant period, it was believed that the boundary between this world and the ‘otherworld’ was obscured. It was therefore thought that the ghosts of the dead were able to enter this world and mix with the living, at this, more than any other time of the year. The ‘Aos Sí’ (pronounced ees shee), were spirits, fairies, and demons etc. which could enter our world to cause trouble. They were both very highly respected and feared.
At Samhain, these supernatural beings needed to be honored so as to ensure people, crops and livestock survived the winter. Many offerings of food, crops and sacrificial animals were left outside homes to please the Aos Sí.
It was also thought on this night that the souls of those who had died throughout the year would attempt to return home so in many cases places were prepared at the dinner table for their arrival. In other cases, bonfires were lit to ward off these spirits and help them on their journey to the afterworld.
The presence of these Aos Si also made it easier for Druids, or Celtic priests, to make prophecies regarding the future. This was an immensely important act and brought comfort to a people who were in many ways, at the mercy of the natural world and the harshness of the long winter.
Again, bonfires were to feature in these prophetic rituals and people gathered to burn offerings of crops and animals as a homage to their deities. In some ancient accounts, human sacrifice also took place. First born children were offered up and drunkenness and intoxication was the norm.
Interestingly, costumes were worn…usually animal heads and furs. Games and pranks were played and folks would attempt to predict one another’s future especially regarding marriage and death. Home-fires were re-lit from a large, main and sacred bonfire as a measure of protection. The flames, smoke and ash having protective and cleansing powers.
Influence of Christianity
With the spread of Christianity, the majority of ‘pagan’ beliefs and holidays were either assimilated, or all together wiped out. In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First came up with a way to address the many heathen practices which flourished throughout Europe. Rather than attempt to obliterate these customs, he advised his missionaries to assimilate them into the Christian belief system. If a certain tree or structure say, was the center of worship, he ordered that it should now be consecrated to Christ. This became the basic approach used in Catholic missionary work.
Likewise, church holy days were set to coincide with native celebrations. The Christian feast of All-Saints Day was assigned to November 1st. All-Saints was also known as All-Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas (Hallowed meaning sanctified or holy). We can now see where the term Halloween comes from, as the evening before this most important day was known as All-Hallows Eve, which was eventually known as Halloween.
All-Hallows was a day to honor the entire lexicon of Christian saints and also those which did not yet have a day of celebration assigned to them. It was hoped that this would replace Samhain and draw the devotion of the Celtic peoples. While not entirely succeeding, the traditional Celtic deities did gradually diminish and become much less potent. Leprechauns, fairies and goblins etc. are examples of the older gods’ diminished status.
The old traditions however never truly died out and by the 16th century, the festival of Samhain throughout Europe included such familiar activities as ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’. These terms refer to dressing up in costume or disguise and going door-to-door singing songs or reciting verse in exchange for food. Performing antics and tricks was also common.
A correlation can be seen between these actions and the earlier belief of the ‘Aos Sí’ or souls of the dead, which would come visiting at this time and needed to be appeased with gifts of food and drink.
It seems to be a case of people impersonating the Aos Sí, and receiving gifts on their behalf in acts of homage. The wearing of masks, disguises and blackened faces was also thought to be a way to prevent being recognized by any ill-intentioned beings. This imitating of malignant, troublesome spirits eventually led to playing pranks such as moving livestock, blocking doorways with carts, throwing vegetables at houses etc. This became popular as it spread throughout England and by the 19th century had reached America.
Acceptance in America
Being strictly limited at first because of rigid Protestant beliefs and values, Halloween found a degree of acceptance in the southern colonies such as Maryland. Not until a mass migration of Irish and Scottish immigrants toward the end of the century however did Halloween start to become common.
As it was absorbed into American society, it was celebrated by people of all backgrounds and became a major holiday.
Back in Ireland, it had been a tradition for many centuries to carve or hollow out turnips, or mangel wurzels (a variety of beet), giving them grotesque faces, then fitting them with candles to be used as lanterns. When Halloween was introduced to America, the turnip and mangel wurzel was replaced with the native pumpkin which was also of coarse, much larger, softer and easier to manage.
The practice of trick-or-treating which is now inseparable from Halloween is an obvious continuation of earlier practices of going door-to-door with songs or verse in exchange for food. ‘Souling’, or the baking and giving of ‘soul cakes’ to those who came calling was also a key influence on trick-or-treating. The visitors, or ‘soulers’ would offer prayers for those of the household’s family who had passed away.
Pranking becomes a major problem
Fast forward a couple of decades and during the 1920’s in the United States, the original activity of pranking had escalated to become the most popular way of celebrating Halloween. Indeed, it had become quite a problem with more than $100,000 in damages each year in major cities. Its thought that the excessive mischief which included acts of vandalism, assaults and violence, led to the widespread adoption of a more community-based trick-or-treating observance in the 1930’s.
The rest of the story is all-too familiar to us. Horror characters such as Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula and zombies have become major influences and immediately associated with modern Halloween. The witch, devil, ghosts, and skeletons are all examples of themes and imagery which have been around for much longer…
…And that just about brings this enquiry to a close. It’s been a personal benefit to look back and gain an insight into the true history of Halloween. It is without doubt a very unique and culturally-illustrative event who’s roots have a very primal and practical meaning for us as a society.
A time of life and death…
…Of celebration and superstition!
I hope all those who read this article have an exciting, advantageous and happy Halloween!