Today, Halloween or All Hallows Day (also known as Hallowtide and Hallowmas), as it was originally known, is a festival that is enjoyed by both the young and the old. It is a time when conventions relax a little and children and adults alike can dress up and be anyone or anything that they want to be. It is a time when we are given the chance to delve into the realm of our subconscious and act out our fears and nightmares. It is also a time when it becomes socially acceptable to indulge in the ideas of the supernatural and explore themes and ideas that, ordinarily, as a society, we would never give any time to. How many of us, though, really know where Halloween originated from or how it came to be?
The Celtic origins of Halloween
To understand where Halloween originated from we must go back all the way to Ancient Gaelic Ireland where Halloween was originally celebrated as the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The literal meaning of Samhain is ‘summer’s end’ and was celebrated as the final end of the lighter summer days and the welcoming of the darker half of the year and the winter months that were to follow. It was a time of preparation for the winter where communities would have to ensure that they had enough food for the cold months ahead whilst summer was sleeping and animals were slaughtered in order to preserve food-stuffs for the lean winter months.
The slaughtering of animals was a particularly important part of Samhain as the Gaels were a pastoral community and the meat from the slaughtered animals (that they would dry out to preserve it) would help them survive over the winter. There was also a ritual element to it and it seems that this slaughtering of animals is tied to the whole theme of death which winter would inevitably bring and was the essence of Samhain. Nicholas Rogers sums up the preparation of the festival quite nicely when he says:
“The feast of Samhain was the occasion of stock-taking and in-gathering, of reorganizing communities for the winter months, including the preparation for itinerant warriors and shamans.”
What I find most fascinating about Samhain, however, is the spiritual aspect of it. It was originally celebrated between the 31st October and 1st November and, like the festival of Beltane that was celebrated on the 1st May (the opposite end of the year to Samhain), it was believed that during this time the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest meaning that spirits and fairies could cross into our world with ease. As such, measures were taken to protect against such spirits and this was done by lighting bonfires which were thought to have protective and cleansing powers. Food and drink were also left for these spirits in an attempt to appease them.
The intense spiritual and supernatural nature of Samhain also becomes apparent when we look at many of the legends and mythological tales that refer to the feast. Many of the legendary kings were slain at this time and many were approached by fairies and deities as well. In addition, many important events in Irish mythology happen either during or at the beginning of Samhain and the importance the Gaels put on Samhain is further illustrated by the fact that many Neolithic tomb passages are aligned to the sunrise on this festival.
There is, however, a darker and quite disturbing side to Samhain where it is possible that sacrifices took place as part of Druid rituals. It is very most likely that animal sacrifices took place but it is contended whether actual human sacrifices took place. There are a few references to human sacrifice in early Irish literature and some later records but academics are undecided on whether human sacrifice took place for certain. Rogers explains that “First-born sacrifices are mentioned in a poem in the Dindschenchas, which records that children were sacrificed each Samhain to the idol Cromm Cruiach [the lord of the mound] at Mag Slecht in County Cavan.” Cromm Cruiach means ‘Head of the Mound’ or ‘Head of the stack of corn’. It was said that Cromm Cruiach was an incredibly important idol of worship for “Until Patrick’s advent, he was the god of every folk that colonized Ireland. To him they used to offer the firstlings of every issue and the chief scions of every clan”. He also seems to be particularly associated with Samhain as an early High King Tigernmas is said to have died with three quarters of his army on the eve of Samhain from worshipping this figure. This gives us some insight into the eeriness that presided over Samhain at this time and is a quality that has been carried over into modern day Halloween.
Despite this dark side to Samhain, the festival nevertheless remained a time to celebrate and be merry for the Celts. Ronald Hutton explains in The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain that the festivities included “meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting”. It was particularly a time for both reflecting about the year that had gone by but also looking to the year ahead. It was also a period where Celts would look to their ancestors for guidance and those who had crossed to the other side were remembered. The themes of death, darkness remembrance and festivity that Samhain represented was also subsequently carried over to All Saints Day which later was celebrated on the same day as Samhain.
From Celtic Festival to Religious Remembrance Day (All Saints Day)
In 835 All Saints Day became formally instituted by Emperor Louis the Pious and eventually came to take over the celebrations of Samhain in the British Isles. Originally it was celebrated on different days of different months around Europe but it subsequently came to take the place of Samhain by being celebrated on the 31st October and 1st November. It is possible that this date was chosen in order to assimilate the festivities of Samhain into this new Christian holiday although some have contested this and have argued that All Saints Day was already celebrated in Germany on this date. Nevertheless, All Saints Day like Samhain was a festival of the dead and possessed the same essence that the original Celtic festival had maintained.
All Saints Day (also known as Hallowmas, Hallowtide, All Hallows Day and eventually as Hallowe’en) was a day of remembering the Saints, those that had been martyred and those that had passed on. Good Christians would pray for those souls that had newly departed this mortal plain and might not yet have reached heaven as well as honour the Saints and Martyrs of the Catholic faith. Families would visit graves and light candles for family members that had recently passed away and towards the end of the 15th century, the baking and sharing of soul cakes became a common custom. Many believe that trick-or-treating originated from this custom of ‘Souling’ where the poor (often children) would go and visit homes where soul cakes would be given to them in exchange for praying for their departed loved ones. Additionally, verses, songs, and rhymes were also performed in order to earn soul cakes.
All Saints Day was an important affair. Church bells would ring, extra candles were purchased for ecclesiastical processions and some would wear mourning clothes. Like Samhain, there was also a merry aspect to All Saints Day where towards the end of the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the Early Modern Period some churches in London would organise elaborate entertainments. Hutton explains that in 1539 St Mary Woolnoth paid five maidens wearing garlands in their hair to play harps by lamplight. Not only this, he elaborates that during the 1470s each mayor of Bristol was expected to entertain the whole council along with other citizens and gentry to “fires and their drinkings with spiced cakebread and sundry wines”.
However, despite this merriment, Hallowtide possessed the same foreboding and superstitious feeling that had presided over Samhain. Bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits and there are references made by one observer in the 16th century to some farmers circling their fields with a burning wisp of straw at the end of a pitchfork to protect the coming crop from “noxious weeds”.
From Hallowtide to Hallowe’en
Superstitions and certain traditions survived up until the 19th century. In Cambridgeshire Fens, for example, households would place food on the doorstep to appease witches that might approach the house and salt was also placed in the keyholes as a protective measure.
Some of the more modern traditions of Halloween start to become popular around this time as well such as guising and the playing of pranks by youths. In County Waterford in Ireland, it was known as ‘Mischief Night’ and pranksters would carve out the inside of a turnip and place a candle insight it which would illuminate the horrifying carved out face of the turnip. This became the perfect illumination to aide these youths in carrying out pranks and creating a climate of fear amongst the community on the eve of Hallowtide.
By the 20th century, these traditions were widely carried out in Scotland, England and Wales. A common rhyme amongst Scottish prankers was:
“Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the boys are marchin’,
We are the guisers at the door,
If ye dinna let us in,
We will bash yer windies in,
An ye’ll never see the guisers anymore”
During the 19th America experienced a massive influx of Irish immigration. With them, they brought the traditions of Halloween which eventually became assimilated into American culture. Turnips were traded for the more readily available Pumpkins and guising, pranking and souling evolved into trick-or-treating. However, it isn’t until the 20th century, after the Second World War, that Halloween became really popular and became the holiday that we all celebrate today.
Samhain, All Saints Day and Halloween as a day of Important Spiritual Significance
As we can see today, Halloween still possesses many of the same characteristics of the Ancient Celtic festival of Samhain as well as All Saints Day. It seems that there is something intrinsically spiritual, as well as supernatural, about the 31st October where despite the changing social and political situation of the ages, the same themes of death, change, superstition and suspension of the social and natural order have stuck. Perhaps, as the Gaels believed, some boundary between our world and the spirit world is lifted during this time and is perhaps why superstitions have lasted throughout the ages.
It is my belief, however, that Halloween’s real magic lies not only in its cathartic practices of play and dressing up but in some of the ancient perceptions of this time that were celebrated during Samhain. What I really enjoy about this time of year is observing that transition into the darker days of winter, watching the leaves fall from the trees and see summer fall into a long sleepy slumber. We find ourselves on the threshold before winter, yet to experience the real darkness that winter will bring and at a point where the veil is thin enough to reach out and touch whatever might exist on the other side of our reality. To me, this is where the magic lies and during Halloween, this is the part of it that I will be embracing.