In preface, may I say that this is not about witchcraft, risqué or zombie cos- tumes or corn mazes.
Before the Christianization and com- mercialization of the Celtic festival, Samhain (pronounced sow-en) and its evolution from a sacred time to the second most commercially lucrative day of the year (only the celebration of the Christmas season generates more financial profits) people living in the British Isles marked this time of year as the most important
of fire festivals, or holy days, because it marked the end of the old and the start of the new year.
The full moon on or around November first marked the completion of the harvest and the completion of necessary preparations for the chilled darkness of the winter months. The Celts believed that during the previous night, Oct. 31, the souls of those recently departed were rest- less and desired more time in the world
of the living. To prevent these souls from overtaking their bodies, the Celts would dress in frightening apparel and roam their neighborhoods making noise to scare the spirits away.
As the new year approached, home fires were extinguished and then relit from embers gathered from Druid ceremonial fires. As the Druids were the Celtic pre- Christian religious leaders, these embers were a sacred part of winter preparation. These embers were carried from the Druid bonfire to individual homes in hollowed out turnips, gourds, potatoes or rutabagas. When the Irish came to America they found that pumpkins were more accessible than turnips and began using carved out pumpkins to carry their embers.
This night of transition from the old
year to the new year was often associated with divinatory rituals. It was believed that in addition to the possibility of spiritual visitation, that dreamed omens more clearly foretold marriages or deaths and other supernatural occurrences were more likely. Druid priests served as both magicians and diviners. And were often sought by young women who wanted to know details about who they would marry. Farmers sought direction and assurance of the next year’s crops.
The Jack-o-lantern custom most likely evolved from the use of pumpkins to carry the sacred embers. In Irish myth there lived a man known as “Stingy Jack,” who was a drunk and a swindler. This Jack made a deal with the devil in which he repeatedly promised to pay the devil for a drink and then failed to keep his promise. Instead of paying the devil for the drink
he tricked him numerous times. The devil became so angry with Jack that he cursed him with the inability to enter neither heaven nor hell upon his death. Later the devil took pity on poor Jack and gave him an ember to light his way as he endlessly roamed the dark earth. He put the ember into a hollowed out turnip for Jack to carry on his lonely sojourn on earth. People from Ireland and Scotland made “Jack o’lanterns” to scare Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits away.
Following the arrival of Christianity in England in the 4th century, and in Ireland (with the arrival of St. Patrick) in the
5th century A.D., the Christian Church couldn’t abolish the ancient Samhain celebrations but instead altered the holiday to honor Christian saints on November
before this holiday became known as All Hallow Mass or Hallow Mas. The night of October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve and later Halloween.
Incorporating both ancient pagan and Christian traditions, the church services
on All Hallows Eve then served as the means to keep haunting spirits away. In Great Britain it was the custom for the rich to give out food to the poor in return for prayers for their own deceased relatives.
It was widely believed that souls would await passage into heaven until enough prayers were said for their souls. This practice, known as “souling,” provided increased assurance that their loved ones could move into heaven. In some cultures soul cakes would be given to both adults and children in exchange for a perfor- mance or song as well.
While there were many who participat- ed in the practice of “souling” there were others who filled the night with mischie- vous activities which upset community social order. These celebrants demanded food, ale and coins from their neighbors and mocked those who wouldn’t comply. They often used masks to hide their identity as they participated in these oft times destructive behaviors. This masked solicitation of food and money may be viewed as a precedent for today’s trick-or- treating behaviors.
These are only a few of the traditions associated with the Halloween holiday we celebrate today. Many of these traditions originated in elements associated with ancient traditions and learning about the origins of those traditions makes the holi- day of today a good deal more interesting and less about witches, goblins, black cats, costumes and light displays.