Happy Halloween! I hope the dark season finds you in good spirits, and a bit magical. On this special, sacred day, I thought it might be fun to explore the festival and the ancient worlds where it originated. So buckle in, and come along with me to pre-Roman Europe, where it all began.
Most people know that Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of “Samhain” (pronounced Sow-in). The Celts who formulated it were ancient European tribes. Most people associate the Celts with Ireland and Scotland, but, according to historical sources, the Celts actually had a much farther reach. Celtic tribes lived in various parts of Europe. In fact, they occupied parts of what is now France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bohemia. In the south, Celts occupied parts of Spain and Portugal, and Turkey in the Mid-East.
There are many of us with Celtic blood! If your bloodline includes European roots, you probably have a bit of Celt in you.
This might be a reason why Halloween resonates so strongly in some of us. For me, it is DEFINITELY a favorite holiday.
The Celts had a belief in “the Otherworld”, although the concept itself is ill defined. It is difficult to know exactly what our Celtic ancestors believed, but we do know they had beliefs in gods and goddesses, faeries, ghosts and all sorts of other-worldly beings.
As the sun faded, and dark part of the year closed in around them, the Celts would have observed everything in nature dying. Thus, their thoughts might have centered upon loved ones they had lost. Just like any other people, it would have been important for them to honor their dead, whom the believed had passed on to the Otherworld.
October 31st marks a halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. To be fair, some historians have argued about the exact dates – most likely the Celts were not calling the month “October”, but nonetheless, they would have been able to scientifically observe the patterns of the sun, and eventually figure out this midpoint. The ancient Samhain festival would have taken place somewhere near the end of October and the beginning of November.
Writings from ancient Ireland tell us that Samhain was celebrated as a mandatory three day festival. Yes, mandatory! You HAD to attend the feasting and revelry. The village Chieftains were required to go around and check that all their people were making merry during this time.
It was believed that any individual who chose not to participate would be subject to the wrath of the gods. This could result in sickness, or even in death.
It is clear that our Celtic ancestors took the festival very seriously!
And some, of course, went overboard in the celebration. There are recorded incidents of people going on drinking binges for six or seven days. Human nature has always been human nature… Give us an inch, we’ll take a mile.
During all this feasting and celebrating, it was also believed that beings from the Otherworld would be popping in and passing by. The Celts thought that the natural world and the Otherworld were only separated by veils, and during certain times of the year, these veils became thin. Samhain was one of the times when the veils were extremely thin.
Beings from the Otherworld could include the faeries, the gods and goddesses, the goblins, the tricksters, the spirits of family members, and many more. Not wanting to be inhospitable, the Celts would often set a table, with food, for these other-worldly beings.
If the other-worldlies were given food to appease them, they would be less likely to play tricks and cause harm to humans. (And some of them could be very nasty. The Celtic faerie world was definitely not all sweetness and light. Faeries were known to kidnap, maim, blind and even kill people.) This practice of leaving food to appease spirits is believed to be the origins of our Trick or Treating traditions today.
Some historians believe the Celts also originated the “dumb supper”. This is a ritual in which a family would set a place at their own table for the dearly departed. During dinner, everyone had to keep absolute silence – hence “dumb” – as a way to honor the dead.
Samhain was also a great time for divination. The Celts had a special relationship with apples. (So did many others, including Eve, the Devil, the Beatles, and Steve Jobs!) The simple apple has long been a fruit of fascination. During Samhain, when apples were harvested, they were also used to predict love relationships.
One practice involved the peeling of apples. Young girls tossed the apple peels on the ground, and the shape or letters the peel took was an indication as to whom her future beau would be.
Another divination ritual was bobbing for apples. Initials of young men were carved into the apples. They were then set in a bowl. The young ladies would take turns – with their hands tied being their backs – bobbing for the apple of the man they loved. If a girl was skillful enough to bite the desired apple in one try, the match was considered to be a favorable one. Two tries were not as good as one, but the match was still favored. However, if it took the maiden three tries or more to obtain the desired apple, her love match was doomed!
During Samhain, the Celts also were known to dress up and wear masks. Since it was believed evil spirits from the Otherworld were present, wearing a mask was a way to blend in and fool them. If you wore a mask and were disguised as an evil being, the chances were better that the evil beings themselves would leave you alone. You would be considered “one of them”. This is believed to be the origins of our costume wearing traditions today.
So, now you might be wondering, how did Samhain change to Halloween? They are similar celebrations, but they are not exactly the same.
In the 1st century, most of Europe became occupied by Rome. The Romans themselves were pagans at this time, and Celtic pagan practices were probably still observed widely around Europe, with traditions blending. This lasted until around the 3rd century. It was then that Roman Emperor Constantine switched his faith to Christianity. It became required that Europeans convert as well. However, a lot of the pagan practices were essentially kept intact, but they were given different names.
In Christianity, it was still important to honor the dead. After all, many of them were saints, and had suffered greatly and been martyred for their beliefs! The Church declared November 1st as the official “All Saints’ Day” in which saints could be honored. November 2nd became “All Souls Day” in which all souls of the dearly departed could be honored, even those who had not been canonized as saints.
Needless, to say, October 31st fell on the evening before All Saints’ Day. Saints were known as “the hallowed” – wearing halos. So saints’ day was called “All Hallowed” and the night before was “All Hallowed Eve”. The slurring of the word is attributed to the beautiful Scottish brogue, which would have pronounced it more as “Halloween”. (Imagine Jamie Frazer saying it. You get the idea.)
Halloween itself went through many changes. It was never celebrated in the early American colonies, due to Puritans who simply would not have it! But over time, the European influence of our Celtic ancestors took hold. Well, to he honest, these influences came from our Celtic ancestors, and also from the indominable spirit of Capitalism! (What better way to make a buck? Candy sales bring in $ millions yearly to the US economy. Not to mention costumes and decorations.)
But regardless of our modern trends, it is important to respect and remember the traditions from whence they came.
Thanks for reading, and have a divine All Hallows Eve!