Published in issue 19, October 2012
Written by Martina from Sparrow Primitives
Halloween and it’s origins
It is generally believed that Halloween has it’s origins with the Celtic peoples. They celebrated four main festivals : Samhain, Imbolc, Beltainne, Lughnasadh. The Celtic year began with Samhain (now commonly referred to as Halloween). Stories have it that all the hearth fires in Ireland were put out and then re-lit from a central fire kept by the Druids near Tara. To the Celts, time was not linear but moved in circles. Samhain was celebrated around 31 October and it was believed that the veil between this world and the land of the departed was thought to be so thin that the dead could return to warm themselves at the fires of the living, and some of the living would be able to enter the otherworld through the doorways of the sidhe, especially at the Hill of Tara in Ireland. Some historians believe that food was left on the table to welcome the the visitors from beyond (the Treat part of Trick or Treat ).
The Celts did not believe in demons (or the devil) but they did believe in the sidhe. The Sidhe were known as the people of the mounds as they were believed to inhabit them and also the land of Tir Na n’Og. (The sidhe are now often called fairies.) Many trees and mounds were believed to be under their protection and if a human destroyed or damaged these, then he and his family were believed to be cursed. Because the veil between the two worlds was believed to be so thin at Samhain, it was understood that some fairy folk would roam the countryside creating mischief (the trick part of trick or treat). At this time of year, the Celts brought their cattle in for the winter, and in Ireland the warriors, the Fianna, gave up fighting until Beltainne and there is historical evidence that playing boardgames was popular!
So how did the Celtic Samhain become our present day Halloween? In the 4th and 5th Centuries, Christianity arrived in Ireland. The early Church officials soon found that the Celtic people were extremely reluctant to give up their deeply engrained traditions, so the Church adopted a practice which had worked elsewhere – impose a church holiday on to an existing tradition e.g. the Germanic Yule became our present day Christmas, the Celtic Imbolc became Easter and Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween.
Some believe that the early Church used fear to make the Celts adhere to the new religion and so the Faeries became demons, the much loved dead became ghosts and ghouls and the Church introduced the concept of the Devil (and evil) to the Otherworld. Many believe that the early church used the Celts’ superstitions to their advantage and transformed what was a Harvest thanksgiving, an honouring of departed loved ones and an offering for protection through the long harsh winters into a frightening picture of hell fires, demons, rotting corpses and the like.
All Saint’s Day and All Hallow’s Eve were reintroduced by Pope Gregory III in the 7th Century and to put it all in a nutshell, rather than bore you with loads of dates, it is commonly believed that All Saint’s Day (Hallowmas – a mass to honour the Dead) was moved to 1st November because the Celts stubbornly stuck with their Samhain celebrations, particularly that of the large bonfire. The 31st of October became All Hallows Even (evolving into Halloween) and the church taught that the bonfires would keep the Devil away. The Church later introduced All Souls Day on 2nd November – a day to pray for souls stuck in Purgatory. At the time of the reformation, Luther and Calvin, among others, tried to call a halt to these Catholic observances but the Protestant communities continued to hold autumnal festivals where many of the old practices continued.
Funny to think that we can thank the Church for continuing with the ancient practice of remembering the dead and associating it with a festival, bonfires and the like!
But all of this is a long way from our modern Halloween celebration, with it’s customs, games, witches, vampires, bats and things that go bump in the night!
Try to imagine Halloween without Witches…How have they become synonymous with our present day Halloween? Once again it is widely believed we have the Church to thank. There are many theories as to the origins of the word “witch” and how it became associated with evil, but a commonly held theory is that it is from the Anglo-Saxon word “wicce”, meaning Wise One. The Church, as we have seen, incorporated many traditional festivals and customs in order to keep the locals happy. However the patriarchial church had no place for the Wise Woman of old and so she was persecuted. Think of the infamous Witch Trials, burning at the stake and reign of terror which occurred. The last official documented Witch burning in the UK took place in Scotland in 1722. It was only in 1952 that the Witchcraft laws were finally repealed. Somehow the association between Samhain (now considered evil) and Witches (also evil) came about.
Finally we are getting to the Halloween we all recognise! Colonial life in some of the new American states kept alive many of the old folk beliefs and traditions. These were not just Irish traditions but those from England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Poland, France – and we must not forget the influence of the large slave population. Many beliefs and customs had overlapping elements e.g. Mischief Night,community parties to celebrate harvests and so on. The traditional symbols of modern day Halloween have their roots in this melting pot of Folklore.
The Jack ‘o Lantern is believed to have orginated with the Celts who used to carve out lanterns from vegetables. The spooky faces became associated with ghost tales, and may have come from the natural phenomenon of “ignis fatuus” – decaying matter releasing combustible gas in marshes and swamps (will ‘o the wisp; corpse candles etc) How delightfully spooky…all mists, eerie gases…and creepily carved lanterns
As we have seen, the Celts left food out for the returning ancestors. Door to door begging was common practice in many cultures – often involving a song or poem in exchange for a treat. In Scotland, the guisers would dress up in horrible costumes and masks, carry lanterns and go door to door singing in exchange for apples, nuts or coins. I used to go out at Halloween asking for “Any apples or Nuts?”, hoping that no-one would be so mean as to give me any…I wanted coins!There are plenty more historical and cultural examples – and no Halloween would be complete without bats, vampires, black cats and ghosts – but they will have to wait their turn as this is getting too long!