A True History of Halloween
‘I know it’s a bit American,’ a mother apologised to me yesterday, when inviting my daughter to a Halloween party.
‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘Halloween is older than America, or its culture anyway. It’s even older than Christianity.’
‘Really?’ she asked.
‘Yes, Halloween is at least 2,000 years old,’ I told her. ‘It has its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic festival. And since most of us here have Celtic blood, it’s entirely appropriate for us to celebrate it.’
‘I never knew that,’ she said. ‘You should write something about it.’
So, never one to refuse an opportunity to write about a subject I find fascinating, here is my True History of Halloween:
Halloween was once one of the two most important religious rites of the Celtic calender (the other being six months later, on May Day).
Long before Christianity reached the shores of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic people who lived there used to hold a festival celebrating the end of the year. Their New Year was November 1, and this festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-un).
Samhain means ‘summer’s end’, and the festival signalled the end of the harvest season, and the turning of the year towards the long, cold, darkness of winter.
For the Celtics, Samhain was one of the two hinges of the year, a time when the door between the worlds was opened. Since it was also a time when the world began turning towards darkness, the fields lay fallow, and the small, weak and old might die, Samhain is also a celebration of death and the dark mysteries.
For many, it was thought to be a time to communicate with the dead, or with the gods. For others, it was a time to protect oneself against the mischief and malice of the unrestful dead, or the fairy creatures of the Otherworld. People used to leave out offerings of food and drink to appease any who were roaming the countryside. Anyone who fed the fairies would be rewarded, and anyone who failed to do so would be punished.
People also used to carve fearsome faces into turnips to scare away malevolent spirits (carved pumpkins are a much later tradition, and, yes, come from America). People used to dress up, and play tricks, and beat pots and pans, all in an attempt to confuse and frighten the dead away.
Another key tradition was the lighting of sacred bonfires to honour the Celtic gods. Everyone would extinguish their own fire, and relight it from the one lit on the nearest hill or in the village square. Afterwards, the ashes of the fire would be sprinkled on the winter fields, blessing them and fertilising them for the next year.
As Christianity began to spread into the Celtic lands, the Roman Catholic Church took over the old festivals and incorporated them into their own calendars. In 835 A.D., Pope Gregory IV re-named Samhain ‘All Saints’ Day’. All Saints Day was also known as Hallowmas, or All Hallows Eve, which gradually became pronounced Halloween.
As the old pagan rituals persisted, despite all the attempts of the priests, the church decided to simply adopt them as Catholic rites. It became usual to light candles for the dead, for example, instead of sacred bonfires.
Instead of leaving out food for the fairies, the church set up a tradition whereby poor would ‘go a-souling’, walking from door to door asking for food and, in return, praying for the souls of the giver’s dead relatives. It was widely believed at the time that the souls of the dead would wait in purgatory till enough people had prayed for their souls. The poor would be given ‘soul cakes’ to eat, sometimes in return for a performance or song. As time went on, it became the practise for poor children to ‘go a-souling’, and so the ‘trick-and-treat’ tradition was born.
Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1593), when a man is accused of “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.” Puling means to whimper or whine.
In the 1500s, the Reformation brought in the Protestant religions, many of which did not allow for any saints or religious celebrations. Even Christmas and Easter were not permitted.
However, the old practices persisted, simply finding new names and new forms. Since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in early November, 1606, Samhain became known as Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires, dressing up, parades, and other celebrations. Children would to go from door to door, asking for a ‘penny for Guy’, so they could make an effigy to burn on the bonfire.
In the New World, the colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day for a while, but as the colonies became the United States of America, Guy Fawkes Day fell by the wayside. Halloween was certainly not a popular festival day, as most of the early settlers were Protestant and so disapproved of what was clearly seen as a remnant of pagan culture.
By the mid 1800s, however, many Irish Catholics fled the potato famine in Ireland by immigrating to the USA. They brought with them their old Halloween traditions, which caught the imagination of the public. Halloween is now one of the most popular festivals in the USA and, increasingly, the Western world.
In Australia, we should properly celebrate Samhain on the 1st May and May Day on 31st October, as our seasons are back to front … but the festivities are much the same – the lighting of candles and bonfires, the feasting and playing, the thinking on the meaning of the turning of the seasons.
So Happy Halloween, everyone … and here’s a beautiful old Irish Samhain poem to help you get in the mood:
My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.
Translated by Caitlin Matthews
And for those of you who like to celebrate the old ways, here is a beautiful Samhain prayer:
This is a vintage post which I have resurrected for your reading pleasure - it was first posted in 2011!
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