Halloween is right around the corner. The one night a year where kids and perhaps some adults as well dress up and get their scare on. Kids roam the neighbourhood for treats and adults attend any number of Halloween or costume parties out there. But what is Halloween all about anyway? And where did it come from? How has it become part of our society’s annual traditions and cultural norms?
The Changing of the Seasons
Halloween is also known as All Hallows Eve or Samhain (commonly pronounced as “sow-een”). Halloween's origins date back to Celtic times and was closely related to the change in seasons and held a specific agricultural significance. It was traditionally a time of year to celebrate the end of summer and the start of winter. The close of the fall harvest and the start of the coldest half of the year. It was a time of year when the fields were reaped, the cattle and sheep were brought in from the fields and the leaves had fallen from the trees as the vegetation began to die away. People settled in to live off the bounty collected from the harvest in order to get them through the cold winter months.
These seasonal changes are part of the reason Samhain is also considered to be the old Celtic New Year. October 31 lies between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. The Celtic people were spiritual and perhaps superstitious as well, and were in awe of times and places considered “in between”. Holy sites were often located in border places such as the shore between land and water. And Holy times were also border times as well. Twilight and dawn marking the transition of night and day. Beltaine (May Day Festival) and Samhain marking the transition of summer and winter. Many Celtic stories, myths and fairy tales occur in such places at such times.
Honouring Our Ancestors
At Samhain, time was thought to have lost its meaning and the past, present and future merged into one. A liminal time when the veil thought to separate our world and the spirit world, the world of the living and the world of the dead, is at its thinnest. It was seen as a time to honour one’s ancestors, celebrate their memory and perhaps even commune with them and seek their guidance or advice the upcoming year. The dead were invited to return to feast with their loved ones; welcomed in from the cold, much as the animals were brought inside. A place was often set at the table for loved ones that had passed. Food offerings were also placed on altars and doorsteps to appease the spirits, fairies and ghosts thought to cross the veil at this time of the year and to keep the bounty of the fall harvest, people and livestock safe throughout the winter months.
Bonfires were lit in honour of the dead and to keep restless spirits at bay as well. Lanterns carved out of pumpkins and turnips which were abundant at this time of year were used to provide light from the bonfires on a night when households let their fires go out so they could be rekindled from this new fire which was believed to be good luck for all households. The name "Jack-O-Lantern" means "Jack of the Lantern, " and comes from an old Irish tale. Jack was a man who could enter neither heaven nor hell and was condemned to wander through the night with only a candle in a turnip for light. Or so the legend goes...
Irish fairy lore is full of such references. Since candles placed in hollowed-out pumpkins or turnips would produce flickering flames, especially on cold nights in October, this phenomenon may have led to the association of spirits with the lanterns; and this in turn may have led to the tradition of carving scary faces on them. It is an old legend that candle flames which flicker on Samhain night are being touched by the spirits of dead ancestors, or "ghosts."
Trick or Treat
Mumming and guising were part of the festival. Masks and costumes were worn and roles were acted out as an attempt to imitate, disguise and confuse the spirits that were thought to be roaming around that night. Villagers would often dress as ghosts, to escort the spirits of the dead to the outskirts of the town at the end of the night's celebration. It eventually evolved into people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise) and asking for donations or reciting verses in exchange for money or food for the New Year’s feast.
In modern Scotland, children have carried on the ancient custom of disguising themselves in costumes. These "guisers" wear masks and carve turnips in the shape of skulls and place a candle within, creating an eerie effect. The children travel from door to door, performing or singing for their treats. When they are not rewarded for their antics, they resort to tricks.
It was not until the 1930s that trick or treating became common practise in North America, a merger of traditional Samhain and Catholic observation of All Souls' Day on November 2nd where the tradition of “souling” also involved those in need going door to door to ask for food in exchange for a prayer on All Souls' Day.
The Emergence of All Hallows Eve
With the growth and spread of Christianity as the dominant religion throughout Europe, Samhain eventually took on Christian names and days of worship. Around the 8th or 9th century the Catholic Church decided to use November 1st as All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day became the festival to honor any saint who didn’t already have a day of his or her own. The mass which was said on All Saints' Day was called Allhallowmas – the mass of all those who are hallowed. The night before naturally became known as All Hallows Eve, and eventually morphed into what we call Halloween.
All Souls' Day on November 2 was a remembrance for all the souls of the dead. We see this merger of Christianity and indigenous customs in other countries as well. Mexico’s tradition of honouring the dead at this time of year eventually mixed with Catholicism and became the Day of the Dead, “Dia de los Muertos”, in early November. Samhain shares the ancient spiritual practice of remembering and paying respects to the dead with these related religious holidays of Christianity.
A Time of Introspection
Whether or not you celebrate Halloween or Samhain, there is an introspectiveness to this time of year that comes with the changing of the seasons. A time to go inwards as the days grow shorter and the nights become longer. A time of transition and letting go of the old as the chill of fall and the hint of winter sets in. It’s a good time to take a moment, perhaps a walk outside and see and feel how the change of the season is manifesting around you and in your life. And use that energy, the turning of the wheel, at this time of year to honour all that has passed and to make room for what can be reborn.
Happy Samhain everyone!