What are the origins of Halloween?
Happy Halloween! What a special one too with a full moon! How much cooler can it get than a FULL MOON ON HALLOWEEN?! I really enjoy the holiday... witches, black cats and pumpkin seeds, candy, costumes... a treat for sure.
The Halloween tradition originated with the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-win”). Ancient Celts, who lived more than 2,000 years ago, mostly in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. During this time of year, hearth fires in family homes were left to burn out while the harvest was gathered.
After the harvest work was complete, celebrants joined with Druid priests to light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the sun and used along with prayers. Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their home to relight the hearth.
In modern times, Samhain is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in “the dark half of the year.” Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and denizens of the Otherworld.
Because the Celts believed that the barrier between worlds was breachable during Samhain, they prepared offerings that were left outside villages and fields for fairies, or Sidhs. It was expected that ancestors might cross over during this time as well, and Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that fairies were not tempted to kidnap them.
Some specific monsters were associated with the mythology surrounding Samhain, including a shape-shifting creature called a Pukah that receives harvest offerings from the field. The Lady Gwyn is a headless woman dressed in white who chases night wanderers and was accompanied by a black pig. The Dullahan sometimes appeared as impish creatures, sometimes headless men on horses who carried their heads. Riding flame-eyed horses, their appearance was a death omen to anyone who encountered them. A group of hunters known as the Faery Host might also haunt Samhain and kidnap people. Similar are the Sluagh, who would come from the west to enter houses and steal souls.
The tradition of “dumb supper” began during this time, in which food was consumed by celebrants but only after inviting ancestors to join in, giving the families a chance to interact with the spirits until they left following dinner.
Children would play games to entertain the dead, while adults would update the dead on the past year’s news. That night, doors and windows might be left open for the dead to come in and eat cakes that had been left for them.
As the Middle Ages progressed, so did the celebrations of the fire festivals. Bonfires known as Samghnagans, which were more personal Samhain fires nearer the farms, became a tradition, purportedly to protect families from fairies and witches.
Carved turnips called Jack-o-lanterns began to appear, attached by strings to sticks and embedded with coal. Later Irish tradition switched to pumpkins. In Wales, men tossed burning wood at each other in violent games and set off fireworks. In Northern England, men paraded with noisemakers.
As Christianity gained a foothold in pagan communities, church leaders attempted to reframe Samhain as a Christian celebration. The first attempt was by Pope Boniface in the 5th century. He moved the celebration to May 13 and specified it as a day celebrating saints and martyrs. The fire festivals of October and November, however, did not end with this decree. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III moved the celebration back to the time of the fire festivals, but declared it All Saints’ Day, on November 1. All Souls’ Day would follow on November 2.
Neither new holiday did away with the pagan aspects of the celebration. October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, and contained much of the traditional pagan practices before being adopted in 19th-century America through Irish immigrants bringing their traditions across the ocean.
Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of activities like trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, festive gatherings, donning costumes and eating treats. Trick-or-treating is said to have been derived from ancient Irish and Scottish practices in the nights leading up to Samhain. In Ireland, mumming was the practice of putting on costumes, going door-to-door and singing songs to the dead. Cakes were given as payment. Halloween pranks also have a tradition in Samhain, though in the ancient celebration, tricks were typically blamed on fairies.