Samhain, with supernatural deities and communication with the spirit world, was very pagan. The Church tried to replace and undermine the Celtic underworld, associating it with Hell and branding their deities as evil, representatives of the Devil. However it was difficult to totally dispel belief in fairies and elves, and the spirits of the dead still roamed. Santino maintains that old beliefs did not die out – “the powerful symbolism of the travelling dead was too strong, and perhaps too basic to the human psyche”. The Church decided something more than an All Saints day was needed, and hence established November 2 as All Souls Day. On this day, the living prayed for the souls of the dead. Church teaching was that the dead remained in limbo for some time after death, and that prayers (and alms) could shorten a souls time in Purgatory and guarantee its passage to Heaven. This seems remarkably close to ancient beliefs of wandering, restless souls, communicating with and assisted by the living on their journey, be it to another side or back home.
The effect of retaining traditional customs while attempting to redefine them has had a sustaining effect. On the days between October 31 and November 2, people continue to celebrate the wandering dead, although the supernatural came to be associated with evil. In Catholic countries, candles lit on the graves of relatives and friends, will illuminate graveyards. Lanterns in the windows of houses remain to light souls home, and fires are kept burning to warm their cold bones. In Poland, doors and windows are left open to welcome spirits and visiting souls.
Many of the rituals and games that will be performed in our homes this week can be traced directly back to a pagan past. Candles will burn in windows and bonfires light the sky. The games we play continue to involve apples and nuts, the last-harvested fruits. As a feast of divination, this was the night for peering into the future – and what better to use than those fruits. In Ireland, if you want to know the initials of your future spouse, you are told to peel an apple and throw the peel over your shoulder to form letters. Girls can use burning nuts to reveal their future husband. The idea of foretelling the future also remains in the baking of special breads with small objects inside. If you get a ring you will get married, a coin you will be wealthy etc..
The practice of ‘trick or treating’, which brings hordes of children roaming the neighbourhood with bags of sweets, is thought to have its roots in the English custom of ‘soul-caking’. From medieval times onward, poor people would beg door-to-door for spiced cakes that the householders would give as payment for prayers the beggars promised to offer for the householders’ ancestors. The more soul cakes the beggars received, the more prayers they would promise to say. Celts also left food and drink out to comfort and appease wandering souls.
Dressing up is not new either. Maggie Black, writing about Halloween in History Today, describes how wearing grotesque masks and costumes has its roots in the pre-Christian practice of impersonating the dead and other spirits. It was believed that in doing so they would protect themselves and others from spectral powers. Today, witches, ghosts, and skeletons are still the favourite disguises when children dress up for Halloween.
The large numbers of Irish immigrants arriving in the post-famine years brought most of the customs associated with Halloween to America. The tradition already had two elements – Celtic and Christian – now the third C – Commercialism – was added. It is now synonymous with costumes and parties, and the spending of large amounts of money on both.
The American version of Halloween may be very distant from its Celtic roots, and perhaps commercialisation has been able to do what the Church could not. However Canadian history professor Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween – From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford 2002), believes that a core of the original idea of Halloween still exists, which is about “human contact with an inverse world where social norms are turned upside down”.
This is still, at its heart, a spirit night, a pagan festival. So when you are stitching up that skeleton costume, and lighting your lantern, spare a thought for the magic that links that simple act to the values and beliefs of your ancient ancestors.