The historic roots of Halloween started with Samhain – pronounced ‘SOW-win,’ a pagan religious festival that originated from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. In modern times, this is usually celebrated from October 31st to November 1st. The purpose of this festival, or holiday, or to welcome the harvest and usher in the darker half of the year. One of the most important parts of Samhain is the belief that the barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds break down during this time and allows for unbridled interaction between living people and spirits or entities of the other side.
With roots all the way back to early Celtic tribes and druids, let’s dive into the start of Samhain and learn which of its customs and traditions have stood the test of time. Spend some spooky time on a tour with US Ghost Adventures!
The time of the harvest was one of the most important in ancient times. A successful harvest meant survival through the harsh winter months. The harvest also marked the start of darker times, and the tradition included costumes and bonfires to ward off the spirits of the dark since the winter was often associated with human death.
In addition to damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier for Druids or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. These prophecies were an important source of comfort during the long, cold winter.
The ancient Celts marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly ‘fire festivals,’ taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and winter solstice. During this time, hearths were hot in family homes and were left to burn out while the harvest was gathered.
After the harvest work was finished, celebrants of Samhain joined with a Druid priest, lighting a community fire using a wheel that caused friction and flames. The wheel was important and symbolic, representing the sun. Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their homes to relight their hearths. Sounds lovely, a true representation of life given from the hard work of the community.
However, some early texts state that Samhain was a mandatory celebration, and if community members did not show up, it was believed that it resulted in punishments from the gods in the form of illness or death. Anyone who committed a crime or used their weapons during the celebration faced a death sentence.
Samhain in the Middle Ages
As the Middle Ages progressed, so did Samhain. Bonfires known as Samghnagans, more personal at-home fires became a tradition, used to protect families from witches and fairies.
This is also when the tradition of Jack O’Lanterns began, but before they were pumpkins, they were turnips — some of which looked exceptionally creepy.
In Wales, men tossed burning wood at each other in violent games and set off Samhain fireworks. Men paraded around with noisemakers and the tradition of ‘dumb supper’ began.
Food was consumed by celebrants but only after they invited their deceased ancestors to join in the feast. During dinner, families would interact with their dearly departed, and windows and doors would be left open that night to come and eat cakes left for them after all of the living guests had gone to bed.
As Christianity started to gain traction during the Middle Ages, 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 13th and stated it was a day to celebrate saints.
In the 9th century, Pope Gregory moved the celebration back to Autumn but declared it as ‘All Saints’ Day’ on November 1st. All Souls Day would follow on November 2nd.
Neither of these new holidays did away with the pagan roots of the celebration, and October 31st was soon known as All Hallows Eve or Halloween, and still contained much of the original pagan traditions before it was brought to America through Irish immigrants.
Original Pagan Traditions That Stuck
This tradition is said to have been derived from ancient Scottish and Irish practices in the nights leading up to Samhain. In Ireland, ‘mumming’ was the practice of putting on a costume and going door-to-door singing songs to the dead — cakes were given as payment.
Tricks were a tradition back in the earliest days of Samhain, but most of the time tricks were blamed on fairies!
The tradition of carving gourds started with an Irish myth of a man called ‘Stingy Jack.’ According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the devil to have a drink with him. Jack ended up not wanting to pay for his libations, so he convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that he could use to buy their drinks.
Once the devil did so, Jack decided to keep the devil-turned-coin next to a silver cross, which prevented him from changing back into his original form.
Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he wouldn’t bother him for his tricks and his wrongdoing. Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, Jack was not allowed into heaven and the devil decided he would not claim his soul either. He sent Jack off into the night with just a lump of burning coal to light his way.
Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish began to refer to him as ‘Jack of the Lantern,’ or ‘Jack O’Lantern.’
In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving creepy facades into turnips or potatoes and placing them in windows or near doors to frighten away wandering spirits like Stingy Jack.
Immigrants brought this tradition to America and soon found that pumpkins make for a much better carving.
Wicca and Samhain
A huge revival of Samhain in its original form began in the 1980s with the growing popularity of Wicca. The Wiccan celebration of Samhain takes on many forms and honors and embraces the traditional fire festivals of days of old.
Wiccans see Samhain as the passing of the year and incorporate common Wiccan traditions into the celebration.
In the Druid tradition, Samhain celebrates the dead with a festival on the 31st of October and usually features a bonfire and communion with the dead — these celebrations resemble those of Mexican traditions during the Day of the Dead.
Halloween of Today
We can see a lot of the original pagan traditions in today’s Halloween holiday, including trick-or-treating, feasts, and jack-o’lanterns. Even though the holiday has evolved throughout the centuries, the original customs have stayed the same — we place carved pumpkins outside of our homes, dress up in creepy costumes and go door-to-door for treats, and treat the holiday as a start of winter, the end of the harvest and autumn, and a time to settle into our homes with a warm fire while we wait for the first flowers of spring.
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