Throughout history we have sought to understand the world around us and, in the past, when we were not as scientifically aware, we would worship the very weather around us The sun, moon and stars had their stories and we praised the gods of the earth and sky for helping us with our harvests and lives.
The festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), the precursor of our modern Halloween, was one of the parties held during the year to celebrate the New Year for the ancient Celts, November 1st. After a time of exceptional hard work, bringing in harvests and finishing preparing food for the cold spell, the Celts would mark the day of turn. This was also a time of death. Not only of a season, but of people. The New Year for the people of that time was a time where the supernatural met the natural and the lines blurred. When ghosts could rise and be seen visiting those who remained at home. Indeed, the Druids used these other-wordly creatures to make prophecies and predictions.
When the Christians took over from Pagans they removed traces of all the Pagan celebrations. for instance, wishing wells were covered by churches and the opening for the well became the font for baptism and christening. Saturnalia became Christmas. Samhain became Halloween after All Hallows Eve
Hallow is Saint. The original Christian denotation was any believer who is “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells, whether in Heaven or on Earth.
While the English word saint originated in Christianity, historians of religion now use the appellation “in a more general way to refer to the state of special holiness that many religions attribute to certain people”, with the Jewish tzadik, the Islamic walī, the Hindu rishi or Sikh guru, and the Buddhist arhat or bodhisattva also being referred to as saints – Wiki
So, the Celtic New Years Day became the Day of Hallows, or All Hallows Day…the day of saints.
“there was throughout Ireland an uneasy truce existing between customs and beliefs associated with Christianity and those associated with religions that were Irish before Christianity arrived” Jack Santino, a folklorist
There was a crossover during this period of change. The people who believed in the one god and those who still believed in the many. Those who believed in the Aos Sí (fairies or spirits) would offer presents to them asking for protection through the following year. For the dead who rose on this night, people would set them places at their dinner tables. Offerings from that years crops, animals and food were left outside dwellings to appease the spirits.
In the 16th century we know about people who would dress up as the spirits and accept food and gifts on their behalf. The villagers or townspeople would play games which all had their roots in prediction telling, or talking to the dead. We still play some of these games, such as apple bobbing. Along the predictions made were divining the name of a future husband etc
It may have originally been a tradition whereby people impersonated the Aos Sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf, similar to the custom of souling (see below). Impersonating these beings, or wearing a disguise, was also believed to protect oneself from them. It is suggested that the mummers and guisers “personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune”.
In parts of southern Ireland, the guisers included a hobby horse. A man dressed as a Láir Bhán (white mare) led youths house-to-house reciting verses—some of which had pagan overtones—in exchange for food. If the household donated food it could expect good fortune from the ‘Muck Olla’; not doing so would bring misfortune.
In Scotland, youths went house-to-house with masked, painted or blackened faces, often threatening to do mischief if they were not welcomed. F. Marian McNeill suggests the ancient festival included people in costume representing the spirits, and that faces were marked (or blackened) with ashes taken from the sacred bonfire.
Elsewhere in Europe, mumming and hobby horses were part of other yearly festivals. However, in the Celtic-speaking regions they were “particularly appropriate to a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad and could be imitated or warded off by human wanderers”. From at least the 18th century, “imitating malignant spirits” led to playing pranks in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. Wearing costumes and playing pranks at Halloween spread to England in the 20th century. – Wiki
Now we have Halloween (Hallows Eve) where we still have people (normally children) wander from house to house collecting sweets or gifts. All Hallows Eve is the day before two Christian holy days. All Hallows’ Day (also known as All Saints’ or Hallowmas) on 1 November and All Souls’ Day on 2 November, thus giving the holiday on 31 October the full name of All Hallows’ Eve (meaning the evening before All Hallows’ Day).
In Ireland and Scotland, they carved turnips but in America they carved pumpkins as they were larger and easier. The first record of a pumpkin carving was in 1837
With the days of television and films we have the chance to expand on the theme and there are some fabulous films out, such as Halloween
So from an old and long running festival which covered the whole of France, Ireland and England, comes a modern tradition for a modern audience. When you dress up on this night, remember you are dressing to commune with spirits and fairies. When you ask for food or money from houses, remember you are actually asking on behalf of the dead. When you carve your pumpkin you are creating light for the dead to see their way home.
But, most of all, when doing any of these, remember to have fun!
Trick Or Treat!