From Samhain to Halloween
Each year on October 31, people all around the world can be found walking down the streets in costumes and going door to door “Trick or Treating”. This tradition has been around for as long as any of us can remember, but where exactly does it start? How far does it go back? Is it different from how we celebrate October 31st today? Halloween is one of the biggest holidays celebrated in America, and dates back thousands of years.
Halloween started 2,000 years ago from an ancient group of people, the Celts, with a celebration called Samhain (“Ancient Origins” 1). The Celts split their years into two different seasons, Beltane and Samhain. Beltane went from May 1st to November 1st, and was known by the Celts as “The Light.” Samhain was from November 1st to May 1st, and was a period of time called the “The Dark.” Samhain meant “summer’s end,” and marked the beginning of a new cycle. Many Celts believed that with darkness, silence comes (Freeman 1). October 31st marked the last day of summer, and the end of the harvest. It was a time of year the Celtics associated with death and darkness. They strongly believed the realms of the living and the dead crossed on this night, and the ghosts of the past would come to visit. Spirits were believed to be mischievous and caused trouble, sometimes damaging crops (“Ancient Origins” 1). Samhain was an elaborate celebration with bonfires, feasts, and sacrifice. Bonfires have especially played a big role in Samhain for one very important reason: The Feast of Tara (Freeman 2).
The Feast of Tara was held every October 31st in celebration of the royal seat of the High King. Every household in Ireland would extinguish their fires and wait for the priests, also known as the Druids, to light a new fire. The new fire was lit at Tlachtga, which was the burial place of the great Druid, Mogh Ruith, who was believed to be a goddess. When the fire of Tara was lit, every household could relight their fire and would celebrate the new light with a huge feast of meat, breads, and the crops from the summer. The fire of the feast of Tara was a kindling of new dreams and a new beginning. The bonfire represented an island of light with an oncoming tide of winter darkness. After the fire, the ashes were sprinkled over the fields to protect them from the cold winter. Another custom after the fires was to make a circle out of the ashes and have each member of a family place a pebble within the circle. If, on the next day, the pebble had somehow been misplaced, it was believed that person would die within one year (Freeman 2).
Another important part of Samhain was sacrifice. Herders would take cattle and sheep away from the pastures and into the stable, and a select few of those animals were chosen to be ritually devoted to the gods before slaughter. The Celts believed the gods drew near to earth at this time of year, so the people offered sacrifices for thanksgiving. Also, personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing peoples’ wishes were thrown into the fire to be sent up to the gods in smoke (Freeman 1).
Instead of sacrifice, some people believed in another tradition of Samhain, soul cakes. These cakes were little pastries baked for the dead to eat to help their souls. They were placed on graves or given to the poor. They were given to beggars as proxies for the dead (Leach 1053). The Celtic tradition lasted for centuries, but the way Samhain was celebrated was changed by an invasion of another culture, the Romans.
The Celts eventually were taken over by the Romans around 43 A.D., and they ruled for 400 years. The Romans combined two of their own festivals with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain: Feralia and The Festival of Pomona. Feralia was a day when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead, and the Festival of Pomona was to honor the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, and the symbol of the apple was imported into Samhain (“Ancient Origins” 1). The tradition of “bobbing for apples” is thought to have come from the celebration of Pomona (Freeman 3).
Throughout the years, Christianity grew strongly across Europe, and in the 800’s, Pope Boniface the IV declared November 1st as All Saints Day. It is believed he did this to replace the Celtic festival Samhain with something church related but still dealing with the dead and lost souls. The Church believed rather than trying to completely erase the Pagan holiday of Samhain, they would use it. Pope Gregory I’s theory was that if people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, consecrate it to Christ. This became the basic approach used in missionary work. Samhain eventually was decided Pagan and evil by the Catholic Church. They believed it was a festival associated with the devil. Druids, or Celtic Priests, were considered devil worshipers who believed in demons and spirits. The Celtic Underworld became identified with Christian Hell. Some believers of the Celtic religion actually went into hiding and were branded as dangerous and malicious. All Saints Day was a holiday meant to replace Samhain forever, though it never fully did (Santino 2). November 2nd was later declared All Souls Day, a time to not only honor saints who had passed away, but all those who had passed. These celebrations were referred to as “All-Hallows”, so October 31st became All Hallow’s Eve, then over time that formed into the word we commonly use today, Halloween (“Ancient Origins” 1). Halloween is also referred to as “The Witches New Year”, and “The Last Harvest” (“Pumpkin Carving” 1).
Halloween eventually came to America as more and more European immigrants came to our country, though there are actually very few records of Halloween celebration in the colonial history of America. Each culture brought their own varied customs of Halloween with them. Northern American colonies were mostly Protestant and had strict religious beliefs against the practice of Halloween. Southern colonies, on the other hand, had more of a mixture of European religion and culture. Beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups began to clash with each other and Native American tribes, and the southern colonies began to mix their Halloween traditions with Native American harvest celebrations. Some of the first celebrations were actually play parties, where neighbors told stories of the dead, told each other’s fortunes, and had feasts with dancing and singing. Around 1850, America was flooded with many immigrants, and each culture helped the celebration of Halloween become very popular (“Ancient Origins” 2). Scottish immigrants celebrated with fireworks, tall tales of ghosts and spooks, games, and mischief. Bobbing for apples was a very popular game, and Puicini, an Irish fortune-telling game using saucers. In the mid 1800’s, the potato famine of Ireland sent approximately 2 million immigrants from Ireland and surrounding countries to America. These immigrants really shaped the Halloween celebration and spread it throughout America. Many supernatural creatures became associated with All Hallows. In Ireland, fairies were some of the legendary creatures thought to roam the streets on Halloween. Many old folk ballads commemorated this, like one called “Allison Gross”, which told the story of a man being saved from a witch’s spell by the fairy queen (Santino 3). English observation of Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th also intertwined with Halloween celebrations. This brought in a lot of pranks and mischief to the holiday. People now believed less in ghosts wreaking havoc on the night of October 31st and more of children causing trouble (Hellion 1). Along with pranks and old legends being told on Halloween, one thing that spread quickly over America was wearing costumes.
Today on the night of Halloween, many children can be seen running around the streets in costumes such as witches and ghosts, their favorite television characters, and many more. The tradition of Halloween costumes actually dates all the way back to the Celts and their practice of Samhain. The Celts believed winter was a very frightening time with darkness, the cold, and a shrinking food supply. On the October 31st, people believed they could encounter ghosts, but to avoid being recognized by these ghosts’ people would wear masks and disguises when they left their homes. Many Celts also wore costumes in celebration of Samhain, usually consisting of animal heads and skins. Throughout the years this tradition evolved into what we now practice today (“Ancient Origins” 3).
Another world-wide tradition of Halloween is carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns. This has become the symbol many of us automatically associate with Halloween. This tradition is believed to have begun around the 900’s, and turnips and gourds were originally used. They were set on porches and window sills to welcome the ghosts of loved ones that had passed away and to protect their home against evil spirits. Instead of candles, these gourds and turnips were lit with burning lumps of coals. Pumpkins weren’t native to Europe, and it wasn’t until European immigrants came to America that they discovered pumpkins and began using them (“Pumpkin Carving” 1).
No one can think of Halloween without thinking of “trick-or-treating.” This tradition goes back to the very first celebrations of All Souls Day parades in England. Poor people would beg for food, and families would give out soul cakes in promise of prayer for dead family members. The distribution of soul cakes was actually highly encouraged by the church. Children began going from house to house to get these sweet treats, and throughout the years the treats began to vary (“Ancient Origins” 3). Today candy is the main treat given out on Halloween night.
Halloween has always been associated as a night of mischief, and many superstitions and legends have arose from this. Some people believe certain things may bring you love, bad luck, or even death. Superstitions have changed and evolved throughout the ages, and some of them are still around today.
Many people hear stories of avoiding things on Halloween in case of bad luck, also known as superstitions. There are thousands of superstitions associated with Halloween. Some have been long forgotten, but some are still well known today. One of the most famous Halloween superstitions is the fear of black cats because of the belief they bring bad luck. This superstition dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when people believed witches would turn themselves into black cats to avoid being recognized. Another common superstition is to avoid walking under ladders to keep away bad luck. This superstition goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, and their belief that triangles were sacred and that they shouldn’t be crossed (“Ancient Origins” 4). If a candle suddenly goes out by itself, as though by breath or wind, it is believed that a ghost is present. If you gaze into a candle flame long enough, you can peer into your future. If a person casts a headless shadow or no shadow at all, it is believed to be an omen of death within the next year. If a bat flies around a house three times, a death omen is placed on that household. It is believed anyone born on Halloween can see and talk to spirits. In Britain, it was believed the devil was a nut-gatherer, and he used nuts as his magic charms (“Halloween Superstitions” 2). Many superstitions also came about from the festival of Samhain.
Samhain was a time of mystery and a time when people believed the lost souls of loved ones drew near to the earth. Certain legends came about with the festival of Samhain. Many believed the barrows where fairies dwelt would open, and a demon who stole babies, Samhanach, was released. For three days before and three days after November 1st, the warriors of Ulster assembled for eating, drinking, and boasting of men they had killed. Each warrior kept the tongue of the men they killed for evidence (Leach 1051). There was also a legend of women being able to change the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, and mirrors (“Ancient Origins” 4). Girls who would carry a lamp to a spring of water believed they could see their future husband in the water’s reflection (“Halloween Superstitions” 1).
There are also many legends dealing with women and love on Halloween night. Many young women believed they could use the magic of Halloween to identify their future husband. Nuts were believed to hold magic. If a woman would eat a baked treat with walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg before bed on Halloween night, it is believed she would dream about her future husband. In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that single young women name a hazelnut for each one of their eligible mates, and then toss all the hazelnuts into a fireplace. The nut that would burn to ashes, rather than pop or explode represented that woman’s future husband. In 1700’s Ireland, a cook would bury a ring into a woman’s mashed potatoes on Halloween, hoping to bring love to the diner who found it (“Ancient Origins” 4). Along with superstitions came many pranks, mischief, and tricks. Halloween became a spooky night with all the old legends, but it also became a night many saw to stir up trouble.
Pranks and mischief turned into a major problem in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Instead of harmless pranks and tricks played on friends, they became acts of vandalism and property damage. Halloween became an excuse to participate in criminal activity. Communities fought back by encouraging “trick-or-treating.” They believed trick-or-treating was a safe way to have fun and keep kids out of trouble. Trick-or-treating became very popular by the 1940’s and has evolved into what it is today (Hellion 2).
Halloween as we know it today started from an ancient ritual very different from our own. What was once a festival full of witchcraft and the belief in spirits and ghosts has now turned into a night of dressing up in a variety of costumes and collecting candy from door to door. Halloween has become popularized by television, movies, music, and other types of media. It has grown to become America’s second largest holiday, and it brings in approximately $6.9 billion dollars annually.
Whether it was Samhain or Halloween, October 31st is a day throughout history that has always had a supernatural feel to it. It’s a night when the air starts to grow cold and stories come about of spooks and legends. It’s a holiday different from the others, and it all started thousands of years ago.
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