It’s the last week of October, you know what that means: Happy Halloween!
I personally love uncovering the origins of everyday or commonplace rituals and traditions and Halloween is a particular favorite of mine because it also has its origins in honoring the dead and the ancestors, which (witch?), if you’ve looked around my website lately, is kind of my jam.
In the case of Halloween, we actually have to talk about the history of Samhain (Sow-en) and All Saint’s Day, which are both predecessors to Halloween as we know it today.
Samhain is an ancient Celtic/British/Druidic feast day that marked the turn of harvest and the day when summer met winter, or life met death. Taking place from sunset October 31 to sunset November 1, or there abouts, Samhain is almost exactly halfway between the vernal equinox and the winter solstice. As the life of summer gives over to the death of winter, it is believed that the veil between the worlds was/is thinner as well: just as the death of the land is near, the dead are near. This also makes it easier to communicate with the dead, with fairies and with other spirits at this time of year. As such, feasts were held in which departed loved ones were encouraged to attend (similar to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which we will discuss later this week), rituals and divination for the new year ahead were also performed at this time– in fact, many scholars believe that Samhain may have actually been the ancient Celtic New Year.
Children would dress up as ghosts or as the dead and go door-to-door, reciting versus or poetry in exchange for food, wine and other supplies to get through the winter– this was called “guising,” does it sound familiar? The fun and merriment had many purposes: to drive away ghouls and other negative Nancy’s rising from the dead, to honor the dying Sun god, to laugh in the face of the approaching cold winter and it’s threat of scarcity (hence, giving treats away), and to likewise boost morale before the cold scarcity of winter hit (which also sounds like another Fall holiday: Thanksgiving.)
In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III tried to distract the pagan Celtics from their traditions by naming November 1 All Saints Day, or a day to celebrate, wait for it. . . all saints. Known and unknown. The new name was accepted but many of the traditional practices were kept up.
Fast forward another couple of centuries and we have the pilgrims, actually Puritans, trying to conquer The New World in the name of God and all of the debauchery and revelry of All Saint’s Day was forgotten in what is now The United States . . . but oh what a sweet comeback it made (see what I did there?).
Okay, so All Saint’s Day was actually originally called All Hallowed’s Day, which is medieval speak for “the day for all who are holy.” So if November 1 was All Hallowed’s Day, that made October 31 (and remember, Samhain spans from sunset to sunset October 31- November 1) . . . All Hallowed’s Eve. Which eventually was shortened to Halloween.
Today’s multi-billion dollar holiday actually owes it’s legacy to the Irish potato famine of the 1800’s. Thousands of Irish immigrants landed in the U.S. to escape the famine and they brought their traditions and folklore with them. (On that note, tell me you have read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods? Do it!.)
Often limited in resources in their new adopted land, or wary of causing a scene, or living in crowded city conditions, the Irish immigrants whittled down their traditional Samhain bonfires and instead put candles in carved pumpkins and other vegetables. The jack o’lantern was born. Its purpose? To sit on your doorstep and scare away any evil spirits that are roaming on All Hallow’s Eve– or the night of Samhain. The glow of the orange pumpkin in the dark of night is also, quite obviously, how Halloween got her signature orange and black colors.
Instead of the whole community dressing up as demons and ghosts and the dead, it became a primary activity for children, who instead of going door-to-door “guising” for food, wine and even coins in exchange for a song, a poem or a lyric, now go door-to-door singing one song: “trick-or-treat!”
So. That’s how Halloween got it’s start. Don’t forget to take a moment next Monday, to honor the time when life meets death and summer meets winter. Eat a little something extra indulgent to laugh in the face of winter. Later this week we will also be talking about ways to honor your ancestors and/or to work with the thinning of the veil at this time of year. Stay tuned!
Trick or Treat!