Mankind has long been fascinated with the process of death and the realm occupied by spirits of the dead. What better time for ancient peoples to contemplate the mystery of death than when they were essentially killing their plants during the harvest and hoping for a successful “rebirth” after the long, hard winter? After all, our modern idea of the grim reaper conjures up visions of a hooded skeleton carrying a sickle, the tool of the harvest.
Ancient people (and many modern people, more than would probably admit it) felt a strong connection to the spirit world. The Celts, and others that occupied the British Isles, believed that the veil between this world and the world of spirit was drawn aside for 3 nights, falling between the midpoint of the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. The true astrological event usually falls somewhere around the end of October into November. Following tradition, the date has now been fixed as October 31st.
They called this time Samhain, pronounced “Sow-en”. During this time, they believed that the dead returned to Earth, along with other denizens of the underworld, to give messages, cause trouble, and just have a hell of a time.
The dead were honored as spirits of loved ones and ancestors that now served as guardians for the living. Priests, Druids, mystics, even normal people, could tap into this divine power and communicate with the spirit world. This was often done to receive messages and advice for the long winter ahead.
During Samhain, villages and groups would gather and have large bonfires. These spiritual ceremonies included wearing animal heads and skins, honoring nature gods and goddesses, and probably involved a lot of celebrating and dancing. After this ceremony, participants would carry home a torch that had been lit from the sacred bonfire, the central aspect of the ceremony, and use it to relight their own hearth fires at their house, which was central to their survival and everyday life, especially throughout the winter. Bringing this divine fire and energy into their homes helped ensure divine help and protection.
Of course, over time the celebrations lost some of their sacredness. With the rise of Christianity, many traditional holidays were absorbed into the church and given new meaning and symbolism. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as All Saints Day. By 1000 AD, November 2nd was celebrated as All Souls day. By this time, Christianity and Celtic traditional beliefs were already starting to merge.
At early All Souls Day parades in England, poor citizens would go door to door to beg for food. They would be given “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s deceased relatives. This was, of course, encouraged by the Catholic church, as a way to replace the ancient tradition of leaving out food and wine for roaming spirits in an attempt to appease them and prevent them from trying to enter the home.
It seems that October 31st, by now called “All-Hallows-Eve”, which later became Halloween, began to be viewed as a night of human mischievous. Spirits still roamed around, and many tricks were played that could be blamed on these otherworldly visitors. Horses were moved from field to field, pranks were pulled, and people would dress up in silly costumes. More cautious people would also wear masks when leaving their homes to avoid being recognized as human by roaming spirits.
The Samhain celebrations were moved to November 2nd, where the church continued the traditions of the huge bonfires. People would also dress up as saints, angels, and devils, and again, have a big party.
During these 3 days, it was still believed that the veil between the worlds grew thin, and that people could contact the spirit realm. Somewhere along the lines, the sacredness and the reality of the harsh winter was minimized, and this contact became a sort of party game. This seems to have been most popular with young women attempting to divine the name of their true love.
Old superstitions involved cooks putting a ring into a pot of mashed potatoes. The lucky guest that came across the ring in their dish would be the next to find their true love. Young women would also throw apple peels over their shoulders, hoping that the peels would land in the shape of their future husband’s initials. There was also a widespread tradition of eating a sugary concoction of hazelnut, walnut, and nutmeg before going to sleep on Halloween night, with the belief that they would dream about their true love.
The tradition of the Jack-O’-Lantern can be traced back to Ireland and the legend of Stingy Jack. Basically, old Jack played a few too many tricks on the Devil during his lifetime, including making the Devil agree not to take his soul if he died. When he did die, God wouldn’t let him into heaven, and the Devil wouldn’t let him into hell. He was cast away by the Devil with only a single burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal in a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth ever since. He was called Jack of the Lantern. People in Ireland, Scotland, and England would carve turnips and potatoes with scary faces and put them in their windows to scare roaming spirits, including Jack, away.
Many Americans in the “New World” brought aspects of these traditions with them. People would have large parties to celebrate the harvest, but our idea of “Halloween” does not make it to America until the immigrant boom of the mid 1800’s. A large amount from Ireland and England brought their traditional celebrations across the Atlantic, much of which contained some hints of the occult, or at least some traditional superstitions.
By the late 1800’s, there was a push from community leaders in America to take the scary and “grotesque” aspects out of Halloween celebrations. They tried to make it more about neighborly get togethers. Parties centered around games, seasonal foods, and festive costumes. By the turn of the 20th century, Halloween had lost much of its spiritual basis, though some superstition still remained.
By the 1920’s and 30’s, Halloween was celebrated with town-wide parades and parties. Vandalism became popular during Halloween. Between 1920-1950, trick or treating became popular. In theory, families could prevent vandalism by giving treats. By the 1950’s, Halloween began to be directed more at young children. Of course, over the decades, Hollywood and horror movies lent some influence to the place held by Halloween in the popular imagination. It has now become the second largest commercial holiday in the country.
As you can see, our modern idea of Halloween has been a long time in the making. From ancient, sacred roots to what we have today, we have retained some old traditions while doing away completely with others. It should be noted that many people have attempted to make a return to their roots, and finding a traditional Samhain celebration in your area may be as simple as a quick internet search.
So, as you’re getting drunk in costume and/or giving out candy this Halloween, try to give more awareness to the subtle spirit world. Maybe that kid dressed like a demon is actually a spirit roaming your neighborhood. Better give him an extra Snickers bar just to be safe. And maybe pay more attention to your dreams that night.
Never lose your sense of awe at the unknown. Happy Halloween!
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