A Celtic Legacy

The History of Halloween and its Modern Day Traditions

October has whizzed by and as we approach the 31st, the air itself has changed from a skin tickling “it’s a bit nippy, innit?”, to a burning freeze that’ll make you want to slap-yo-momma! However, as I step outside on this misty October morning, a prickly feeling unaffiliated with the cold air starts at the base of my neck and sends a shiver down my spine… The air itself seems to crackle with a malevolent aura. My overactive imagination immediately goes into overdrive as I walk my usual route through the sodden, multicoloured under-bush, and I imagine a variety of oddities in the surrounding forest terrain. Something potently magical and slightly sinister seems to be brewing amidst the cold October air… My eyes dart from tree branch to tree branch as my brain imagines pentagrams formed in the barren boughs and twigs above me. Could the surrounding silent mist be a gateway to a different dimension? Are my thoughts alone the key to summoning up a Demogorgon from its infernal realm?! I feel eyes on me… Something is creeping closer… They’re onto me… They’re– "AAAAAAAAARGH! HEEEEEEEELP!" …I hightail it home in a blind panic, convinced that I’m being chased by a Demodog-driven sleigh with Pennywise at the reins!  

Okay, putting aside the fact that I might actually be a little nuts, silly thoughts such as these seem to pop up during this time of year and once again I find myself wondering, are they in fact so silly? October is undoubtedly a spooky time of the year, mainly due to its affiliation with Halloween and the marketing masterminds of American merchandising. That being said, I am a lover and devoted fangirl of all things mysterious and supernatural, and this Halloween season I’ve taken it upon myself to ascertain the truth that lies underneath all of the hubbub surrounding this crazy holiday. If you’re like me, and are curious to locate the root of all this madness, read on as I delve into the spooky, and somewhat misinterpreted, history of what we know to be Halloween.

According to our loyal and trusted friend Google, “Halloween” is a shorted version of All Hallows' Eve or the night before All Saints Day, and is celebrated on October 31st, as we all know. Its origins date back about 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic pagan festival Samhain (pronounced saw-in), marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “darker half” of the year, aka. Winter. People of this time in history were highly superstitious, believing that dressing up in freaky costumes and making wild noises in the streets was the best remedy for warding off evil spirits. Where I’m from that’s called a regular Tuesday afternoon at Drag-Queen bingo, but back then it was believed that during Samhain, these spirits or ‘fairies’ could more easily cross the boundary from the ‘otherworld’ into ours (further feeding my paranoia about the morning mist… perhaps it’s best not to dwell on this thought…). Anyhoo, these spirits, or Aos Sí, were seen as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits and they needed to be propitiated with offerings of food and drink to ensure the survival of the people and their livestock throughout the perilous winter months. Furthermore, the souls of the dead were thought to revisit their homes during Samhain, seeking hospitality from the new owners of their previous abodes. Therefore, once a year on October 31st, costumes were made, feasts were prepared, and the dead were given a free pass for one night only to dine with the living. So, what is Halloween like today?

It’s no surprise that around this original idea of All Hallows’ Eve a widely commercialised holiday was born. Today, the most popular Halloween traditions, trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving and bonfire lighting can also be located in the holiday’s history. Let us take a closer look at these three modern day traditions and see if we can spot the similarities with the originals.

1. Trick-or-treating

Trick-or-treating, a practice largely marketed in the U.S., is where children in costumes travel from house to house, demanding treats with the phrase "trick or treat". The "treat" is usually some form of candy, but sometimes money. The "trick" refers to a threat, usually idle, to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given. This once a year free pass for children to blackmail adults was once a very respectable tradition called guising, and was a big part of the Samhain festival. In the original version, people would dress up in costume or disguise and go door-to-door reciting verses in exchange for food. Nowadays, kids stay up way past their bedtimes and OD on M&M’s acquired by threats of minor vandalism… When did it all go so awry?

2. Pumpkin carving

Carving pumpkins into scary-faced jack-o-lanterns is also an old tradition, although these days it can be a way of expressing unique individual creativity (next level, right? Or perhaps a slightly less elegant expression of ones carving talents, but nonetheless equally creative). However, the practice originates from an Irish tale of a village drunk named Jack, who repeatedly played tricks on the Devil until the day he died. Legend has it that upon his death, Jack was denied entry into heaven due to all of his shenanigans on earth and therefore sought entry into hell. The Devil saw an opportunity to pay Jack back for all his dirty trickery and sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack placed said coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

3. Bonfire lighting

Lighting bonfires on Halloween derives from the 18th and 19th centuries, when bonfires were lit on the hilltops of the Scottish Highlands, as they were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers. Like I said, people were hella paranoid about this type of thing way back when. These days, bonfire lighting seems to be done out of the sheer enjoyment of setting crap on fire.

If you share my particular fondness for the spooky, the grotesque and the macabre, then October is your month! To further whet your appetite for this sort of thing, check out how Halloween is celebrated in other parts of the world. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Sources:

Rogers, Nicholas (2002). "Samhain and the Celtic Origins of Halloween". Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, pp. 11–21. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516896-8.

History of Jack O’ Lanterns https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/jack-olantern-history 

History of Trick-or-Treating https://www.history.com/news/halloween-trick-or-treating-origins

“Samhain” Image by Irelands Hidden Gems http://www.irelands-hidden-gems.com/Halloween.html 

“Girl running” Image by Memegenerator https://memegenerator.net/instance/82141565/little-girl-running-away-i-see-pennywise-run

“Beetlejuice” Image by Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/559290847452629530/

“The Dark Night” Image by Know Your Meme https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/some-men-just-want-to-watch-the-world-burn