Samhain to Halloween

From ancient history to modern times, Halloween is steeped in traditions!

As Halloween draws ever-nearer, it’s time for us to reflect on being halfway through the autumn season already, and look with anticipation towards the most ‘fall’ night of them all: Halloween, or All Hallows Eve. 

Halloween itself has been used in our culture as an excuse to dress up and get free sweets and junk food for decades, but the origins of Halloween as a concept itself are less well known to most casual revelers…

 

 

            Halloween started out originally as Samhain, a fall festival celebrated most notably by the Ancient Celts. This day was actually celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st and marked the beginning of harvest season and the end of the first half of the year - Remember, this is back when the start of spring marked the beginning of the new year, not January.

            Samhain was known as a time for reveling and drunkenness, and was associated with divination and prophecy, as well as being a time for blessing the crops and the livestock that were about to be harvested or slaughtered for winter. It was also considered a festival for the dead, a time when spirits could easily pass through the doors that separates the physical and magical planes, and many rituals were done to prevent these spirits from casting curses or causing mischief. 

 

             One way these traditional influences our modern Halloween celebrations is through the Samhain fires. Often, a bonfire would be lit during Samhain and used in rituals to cleanse people and livestock of bad luck from the months before and encourage prosperity and good luck in the months to follow. People would often take torches lit from that fire home to their houses and fields to protect them and banish evil, and then relight their own hearth with that flam to bring protection and good luck into their lives.

            Our modern jack o’ lanterns somewhat mimic that tradition. Carving spooky and intimidating faces onto them, we light pumpkins from inside with our own little bonfires so that they glow and reveal those faces in the dark evenings of what would be considered Samhain – sunset on October 31st.

 

            Our traditions of costumes and trick-or-treating came from the old Irish and Celtic tradition of ‘mumming’, which developed in the 16th century as a way to appease evil spirits. Those dressed up were said to represent the spirits themselves, and when they knocked on the door they would sing songs and recite verses in exchange for food and drink. Giving these mummers food was considered the same as making an offering to the actual spirits themselves, and blessed your home with good luck just as normal offerings would.  

            Our modern trick-or-treating, while for candy and not bread or wine, carries those traditions of exchanging verse (“Trick or treat!”) for offerings. While the spirits are no longer involved, costumes are, much to the joy of everyone who gets to dress up for a night and have fun!

 

 

            If you’re older, you may not trick or treat anymore – but fear not, there’s still one tradition that’s faithfully followed to this day!

            Samhain festivals were also well known for reveling and drunkenness, a last burst of fun and community before the long winter set in and holidays become more contained and reflective tan celebratory – at least until Beltane rolled around.

            Modern Halloween parties, while lacking a certain ritualistic or spiritual nature, carry the tradition of having fun with friends on Samhain over to the modern age and keep that same spirit alive from the Ancient Celts to today. And one thing’s for sure – no matter when in history, people always love an excuse to have a party!

 

Sarah is a freshman studying Theatrical Design and Production at Carnegie Mellon University. One day she hopes to design costumes for Star Wars and Marvel films or television programs, but for now you can find her in her free time hanging out in her dorm drawing or watching TV, trying out a new mug cake recipe, or reading her latest National Geographic issue. You can follow her on Instagram at @theocqueen to see all her latest doodles and sketches.

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