What is Halloween? Why do we celebrate Halloween on October 31st? Why do we wear costumes, or carve pumpkins on Halloween? What are the origins of trick or treat? Halloween, often tainted with comercialism, is a deep rooted festival with origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain.
“We had no pumpkins for Halloween when I was a kid, so my dad used to make a lantern out of a turnip.”
Lots of Irish adults tell their children the same story – usually to illustrate how much poorer everyone was back then. However the real reason is very different. Halloween may be a tradition that we now associate with the ‘trick or treat’ traditions of America, but its origins are Celtic, and the pumpkin only a poor imitation of the turnip lantern, which is the ancient symbol of a damned soul.
The lantern was the festival light for the feast of Samhain – literally, the day between years – a festival of endings and transformation. This was a pagan New Year’s celebration, centred on celebration of the dead and hopes for the future. Lights and fires were central to Samhain, and so when we light our pumpkins and bonfires this November, we are continuing a tradition that is almost 2000 years old.
In the year 601 AD, Pope Gregory came up with a brilliant idea that developed into a basic principle in Christian missionary work. Instead of obliterating traditional customs and beliefs, he decreed that missionaries should use them. If a tree was the object of worship, turn it in to God’s tree. One of the results of this policy was that Catholic holy days were set at the time of traditional holy days. Winter solstice, for instance, became Christmas. In the 9th century, the church attempted to root out the paganism associated with the Samhain festival, by moving All Saint’s Day from May to November 1 (All Hallows = Halloween – hallow means holy, or saint).
In the book All Around the year (University of Illinois Press, 1995) and articles like “Night of the Wandering Souls” (Natural History Magazine 1983), American professor of popular culture Jack Santino writes extensively on the origins of Halloween. He believes virtually all of our current customs can be traced back to the ancient Celtic feast.
According to the Celtic calendar, the year began on November 1, a date that marked the beginning of winter. The last of the crops had been harvested, and livestock secured for the dark season. It was both the ending and the beginning of an eternal cycle. The Samhain festival, observed at this time, was the biggest and most significant of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that at this turning of the seasons, spirits mingled with the living. Samhain Eve was a time when the dead were allowed to return to earth for a day, and their souls ventured toward the warmth of homes and hearths. Feasts were held with places set at the table for dead relatives. This was also the time when the souls of those that had died during the year travelled in to the Otherworld.
To ensure summer would rest safely and return, spirits had to be appeased. Bonfires were lit to honour the dead, to keep bad spirits away from the living and to encourage the wasting sun to revive. This was a festival of fire. On this night in ancient Ireland, a new and sacred fire was kindled, from which all the fires would be lit. People would extinguish their hearths and bring embers to hilltops to light bonfires. These bonfires in turn were used to rekindle the fire at home in a symbolic renewal of the year and of home and hearth.