Samhain & Halloween; Origins
In the UK we are getting ready to celebrate Halloween which these days involves dressing up in a range of costumes, some scary and some not but the dressing up is the fun for the kids not the scare factor. There will be people knocking on doors asking id the householders would prefer to ‘trick or treat’ plus there will be many others holding parties with traditional games such as apple bobbing, hide & seek and the like plus food themed for the evening.
Many of us may be of the generation where we just did not really go into all this, in the last decade it has become much bigger, probably because our children watch so much American TV, this would also explain why we seem to be seeing a rise in the number of schools holding Proms and Graduation ceremonies. Some of us are really into it all and others are not, so will you be celebrating?
Whether you decide to celebrate the occasion or not, do you know where the origins are? Do you know why we have the customs we do? Let’s have a look at some of the more popular aspects of Halloween.
To really discover the roots of Halloween we need to take a trip back in time to ancient times in Celtic Ireland. The Celts are renowned for their deep spirituality and their psychic nature. In the Celtic faith Halloween was originally known as the ceremony of November which in ancient Celt is Samhain (pronounced sow-wain) and All Hallows Eve hence the shortened Halloween.
Samhain actually celebrates 3 different aspects of the Celtic faith:
Fire Festival 31st October/1st November
Fires would be lit on the evening of 31st as a symbolic cleansing; these fires would be lit by the townsfolk and then ceremonially extinguished & relit by the Druids which is symbolic of the casting out of the old, allowing the new to come in, this is similar to our New Year celebrations.
The Pastoral Cycle (Farming Practice)
In the days when most people worked on the land, the majority of our celebrations were linked to aspects of the land. At the en d of October the Celts (and many other cultures) would have finished gathering in the crops before the Winter arrived, placed in storage to protect them and any livestock would have been brought in either for slaughter (this has its own rituals) and for breeding to continue the food supply (sorry to any Vegans or Vegetarians).
The Veil between Earthly & Spiritual Realms
As the last day of the year in the Celtic faith, this was also the day when the veil between the earth & spirit was the thinnest and the souls of any departed were able to return to their earthly homes, this was also a time when evil spirits such as Puca, Banshees, Fairies and the like got released from the Otherworld, Spirit, Purgatory etc and would be visible to us, regardless of having the gift.
So let us have a look at some of the symbols of Halloween or Samhain:
Apples: As Samhain denoted that the end of the summer and the harvest so at this time all the crops should be collected. Any apples not picked by the 1st November were believed to be tainted by the Irish evil fairies known as Puca as it was said they spat on any apples not picked in time. This is where the toffee apples and apple bobbing came from as it would have used up any fallen apples that would not last but were mainly for fun as everyone could take part and apples were plentiful.
Costumes & Masks: The townsfolk would be scared that any souls returning would be looking to have retribution on those that they did not like or who did them wrong when alive so by dressing up in grotesque masks, and wearing clothing that was different to usual, this would confuse the spirits. The fires were to help ward them off along with loud noises such as drums and horns to keep them away from the homestead. Some would just leave food though under the Whitehorn or Hawthorn bushes (considered the home of the Fey such as Fairies) to appease them.
Spells & Hexes: At this time of year any spells cast were considered to be particularly strong with the date being full of portent.
Food: In our modern times it seems that any occasion is an excuse for the supermarkets to ply us with food to increase their sales but in fact it would have been tradition to leave extra food out to honour our departed ancestors, if it was not left out then fear of retribution or angering the departed would have been an issue. I’m sure we did not go to the extremes the supermarket would like though.
Games: The Celts were incredibly superstitious and would see messages or omens in the smallest thing. Did you ever play the game as kids where you peeled a banana but had to do it in 4 strips not 5? Did you ever do the apple peeling game where you had to peel it in 1 continuous piece of rind? The Celts would peel the apples for the celebratory meals and would see shapes of letters of future babies or partners in the peeling.
What about the game where you hide an object in dishes like potato or porridge? The Celts would hide a ring and a thimble, and then take it in turns to stir the dish of potato & cabbage (Colcannon) until they were discovered. The ring symbolised a marriage within the next year for the finder, for the finder of the thimble it symbolised the opposite, no love or marriage.
Trick or Treat: Bet you thought this was a modern twist huh? The Druids would collect the eggs, nuts and apples (more apples) from the townsfolk, the donations were seen as an offering at would in return bring them protection (does this mean the Mafia is spiritual???). Those that did not give or donated in a miserly or resentful way would have tricks played on them, only fun things like turning their washing inside out, reseating the gate so it opened in the opposite way to normal and so on.
Pumpkins or Jack O’Lantern: The Celts had carved turnips as pumpkins were not available in Ireland in ancient times. They carved them out and left them on their doorsteps with a candle inside so it would cast its light and keep any unwelcome spirits away. This is down to an old tale of a young man called Jack O’Lantern who is said to have made a pact with the Devil only for Jack to not uphold his side of the pact but the Devil kept his word and took no retribution. After the third such occasion Jack is said to have died but on getting to Heaven he was denied access as they did not want ‘his sort’ there, the Devil finally got retribution at this point by ALSO refusing him entry to Hell so he was cast out to wander for eternity. His only possessions were a turnip and a piece of coal which the Devil threw at him. Using the coal as a candle he wanders through Ireland with his light.
I hope you found this article interesting, it was fun to research and write. Enjoy Halloween.