The History, Legends, and Myths of
Halloween: Fact from Fiction
What follows is a brief history of Halloween based on the most popular and accepted facts regarding the history and origins of Halloween. Since much of what is known regarding the beginnings of Halloween is sketchy, we have tried to provide you with the most accurate, albeit brief, account available. In no way do we claim this to be the final word on the subject as the origin of Halloween to this day remains open to discussion and dispute.
The name Halloween comes from All Hallows' Eve, often pronounced as All Hallow e'en. This is the evening before All Saints' Day (November 1), also known as Allhallowmas. Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means summer's end. In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as Oíche Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter's start. Halloween has nothing to do with "Hell", as "Hallow" means "Holy one" or "Saint". The Celts called it Samhain (pronounced sah-win), summer's end. About 2500 years ago, the Celts (so named by Greek writers) ruled most of Europe, but were pushed back by the vandals and Romans to the far west-north-west of Europe: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall (in the south-west of England), Brittany (in the north-west of France) and Galicia (in the north-west of Spain).
Allhallowmas - Samhain
It is commonly believed that Allhallowmas was based on the Celtic fire festival of Samhain, the October 31 feast celebrating the end of summer and the end of the Cetic year. The festival of Samhain was characterized as one of the four great Fire Festivals of the Celts. It is said that the Druids, the learned, priestly class of the ancient Celts, lit fires to keep away those unwanted spirits of the dead, who returned for the night. Legends tell us that on this night, all the hearth fires in Ireland were extinguished, and then re-lit from the central fire of the Druids at Tlachtga, 12 miles from the royal hill of Tara. This fire was kindled from need fire which had been generated by the friction of rubbing two sticks together as opposed to more conventional methods common in those days.
The extinguishing of the fires symbolized the dark half of the year, and the re-kindling from the Druidic fires was symbolic of the returning life hoped for, and brought about through the efforts and powers of the priesthood. Unfortunately, we know very little of the druids. There is comparatively little trace, besides the folklore of the peasantry, of the religion of the Druids remaining, and the references to it that occur in ancient and authentic Irish manuscripts are, as far as present appearances go, meager and insufficient to support anything like a sound theory for full development of the ancient religion. The Druids passed on their teachings by oral tradition instead of committing them to writing, so when they perished, most of their religious teachings were lost.
Death and Rebirth
The end of the warm seasons was significant to the Celts because it meant the time of year when the structure of their lives changed radically. As the beginning of the coldest part of the year, the Celts thought of this season as both a dangerous time and as a new beginning. This was the Celtic new-year's eve, celebrated on the last day of October to encourage the dimming Sun not to vanish. On the evening of the festival, the Druids may have ordered the people to put out their hearth fires. The Druids then would have built a huge new-year's bonfire of oak branches, which they considered sacred. People would have danced around the bonfire to keep evil spirits away, meanwhile leaving their doors open in hopes that the kind spirits of loved ones might join them around their hearths. In commemoration of the event, people burned crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.
They burned animals to cull from the herds those animals which were not desired for breeding purposes for the next year, but most certainly, some of these would have been done in a ritualistic manner for the use of the priesthood. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted many forms of divination. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter. People would have then gathered into the houses for the long winter nights of story-telling and handicrafts. Samhain was the final harvest of the year. Anything left on the vines or in the fields after this date was considered blasted by the fairies, or "pu'ka", and unfit for human consumption. On this evening divination was thought to be more effective than any other time, so methods were derived to ascertain who might marry, what great person might be born, who might rise to prominence, or who might die.
While the Celtic practice of animal sacrifice is widely accepted, scholars are sharply divided on the matter of whether or not humans were sacrificed, with roughly half believing that it took place and the other half doubting its veracity. Caesar and Tacitus certainly tell tales of the human sacrifices of the Celts, but Nora Chadwick points out in her book "The Celts", that "it is not without interest that the Romans themselves had abolished human sacrifices not long before Caesar's time, and references to the practice among various barbarian peoples have certain overtones of self-righteousness. There is little direct archaeological evidence relevant to Celtic sacrifice." Indeed, there is little reference to this practice in Celtic literature either.
The only surviving story echoes the story of the Minotaur in Greek legend. The Fomorians, a race of evil giants said to inhabit portions of Ireland before the coming of the Tuatha de Danaan, or "people of the Goddess Danu", demanded the sacrifice of 2/3 of the corn, milk, and first born children of the Fir Bolg, or human inhabitants of Ireland. The De Danaan ended this practice in the second battle of Moy Tura, which incidentally took place on Samhain.
And what about the aspects of "evil" that we associate with the night today? The Celts had no demons and devils in their belief system. Fairies, however, were often considered hostile and dangerous to humans because they were seen as being resentful of men taking over their lands. On this night, they would sometimes trick humans into becoming lost in the fairy mounds, where they would be trapped forever. After the coming of the Christians to the Celtic lands, certain of the folk saw the fairies as those angels who had sided neither with God nor with the Devil in their dispute, and thus, were condemned to walk the earth until judgment day. In addition to the fairies, many humans were abroad on this night, causing mischief. Since this night belonged neither to one year or the other, Celtic folk believed that chaos reigned and the people would engage in "horseplay and practical jokes". This served also as a final outlet for high spirits before the gloom of winter set in.
So how did it come to be a festival of the dead? The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land of eternal youth and happiness called Tir Nan Og. They did not have the concept of heaven and hell that the Christian church later brought into the land. The dead were sometimes believed to be dwelling with the Fairy Folk, who lived in the numerous mounds or sidhe (pronounced "shee") that dotted the Irish and Scottish countryside. Samhain was the New Year to the Celts. In the Celtic belief system, turning points, such as the time between one day and the next, the meeting of sea and shore, or the turning of one year into the next were seen as magical times. The turning of the year was the most potent of these times. This was the time when the "veil between the worlds" was at its thinnest, and the living could communicate with their beloved dead in Tir Nan Og.
Christians claim that Samhain was the Celtic lord of death, who allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes for this evening. However, contrary to the information published by many organizations, there is no archaeological or literary evidence to indicate that Samhain was a deity. The Celtic Gods of the dead were Gwynn ap Nudd for the British, and Arawn for the Welsh. The Irish did not have a "lord of death" as such.
The Irish Texts Society's Irish English dictionary defines the word "Samhain" as follows: "Samhain, All Hallowtide, the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, signalizing the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season, lasting till May, during which troops (esp. the Fiann) were quartered. Faeries were imagined as particularly active at this season. From it the half year is reckoned. Also called Feile Moingfinne (Snow Goddess). The Scottish Gaelic Dictionary defines it as Hallowtide. The Feast of All Soula. Sam + Fuin = end of summer."
In addition, other practices were associated with this season. Folk tradition tells us of many divination practices associated with Samhain. Among the most common were divinations dealing with marriage, weather, and the coming fortunes for the year. These were performed via such methods as ducking for apples, and apple peeling. In Scotland, people would place stones in the ashes of the hearth before retiring for the night. Anyone whose stone had been disturbed during the night was said to be destined to die during the coming year.
By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween. Ducking for apples was a marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year. Apple peeling was a divination to see how long your life would be. The longer the unbroken apple peel, the longer your life was destined to be.
Meanwhile, the "sweep" of Christianity had begun in other areas and their mode of operation was becoming set. In their efforts to wipe out "pagan" holidays, Christians found their greatest success in "transformation" rather than "elimination". In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.
Samhain became the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. In the early centuries of the first millennium A.D., before missionaries such as St. Patrick and St. Columcille converted them to Christianity, the Celts practiced an elaborate religion through their priestly caste, the Druids, who were priests, poets, scientists and scholars all at once. As religious leaders, ritual specialists, and bearers of learning, the Druids were not unlike the very missionaries and monks who were to Christianize their people and brand them evil devil worshippers.
By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In 835 AD, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as "All Saints' Day", a time to honor saints and martyrs. Today, it is widely believed that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. They did this because the "pagan" Celts celebrated the new-year on November 1 and by replacing it with a church-sanctioned holiday they could continue to celebrate this day as "Christians". The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Now bonfires blazed to light the paths of souls to heaven, church bells tolled to guard against evil, and people scattered graves with offerings of flowers and foods that had been favored by the deceased. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas. The previous day, October 31, became known as All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween.
Joined together, these two traditions, one pagan and the other Christian, continued to flourish in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. People went out dressed in masks and robes to frighten away evil. Some went from farm to farm demanding food tributes to an old god, Muck Olla, carrying "Jack-O-Lanterns", hollow turnips with candles burning inside. Methods of divination included the formerly popular gathering of families around fires to throw in marked stones--any stones not later found among the ashes threatened the death of the throwers during the coming year. Young girls bobbed for apples, and those successful kept the fruit under their pillows hoping to dream of the ones they would marry.
Samhain, now converted to Halloween, and its emphasis on the supernatural, remained decidedly pagan. In what came to be customary fashion, while the converting missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion's supernatural deities as evil, and associated them with the devil. As representatives of the rival religion, Druids were considered evil worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits. The Celtic underworld inevitably became identified with the Christian Hell.
The effects of this policy were to diminish but not totally eradicate the beliefs in the traditional gods. Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted, while the church made deliberate attempts to define them as being not merely dangerous, but malicious. Followers of the old religion went into hiding and were branded as witches. The Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November 1st. The day honored every Christian saint, especially those that did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. This feast day was meant to substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion of the Celtic peoples, and, finally, to replace it forever. That did not happen, but the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status, becoming fairies or leprechauns of more recent traditions.
The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong, and perhaps too basic to the human psyche, to be satisfied with the new, more abstract Catholic feast honoring saints. Recognizing that something that would subsume the original energy of Samhain was necessary, the church tried again to supplant it with a Christian feast day in the 9th century. This time it established November 2nd as All Souls Day--a day when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead. But, once again, the practice of retaining traditional customs while attempting to redefine them had a sustaining effect--the traditional beliefs and customs lived on, in new guises.
All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (hallowed means sanctified or holy), continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil. The folk continued to propitiate those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe'en--an ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year's Day in contemporary dress.
Many supernatural creatures became associated with All Hallows. In Ireland, fairies were numbered among the legendary creatures who roamed on Halloween. An old folk ballad called "Allison Gross" tells the story of how the fairy queen saved a man from a witch's spell on Halloween.
O Allison Gross, that lives in yon tower
the ugliest witch in the North Country...
She's turned me into an ugly worm
and gard me toddle around a tree...
But as it fell out last Hallow even
When the seely [fairy] court was riding by,
the Queen lighted down on a gowany bank
Not far from the tree where I wont to lie...
She's change me again to my own proper shape
And I no more toddle about the tree.
In old England cakes were made for the wandering souls, and people went "a' soulin'" for these "soul cakes." Halloween, a time of magic, also became a day of divination, with a host of magical beliefs: for instance, if persons hold a mirror on Halloween and walk backwards down the stairs to the basement, the face that appears in the mirror will be their next lover.
Virtually all present Halloween traditions can be traced to the ancient Celtic day of the dead. Halloween is a holiday of many mysterious customs, but each one has a history, or at least a story behind it. The wearing of costumes, for instance, and roaming from door to door demanding treats can be traced to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of the Christian era, when it was thought that the souls of the dead were out and around, along with fairies, witches, and demons. Offerings of food and drink were left out to placate them. As the centuries wore on, people began dressing like these dreadful creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink.
This practice is called mumming, from which the practice of trick-or-treating evolved. To this day, witches, ghosts, and skeleton figures of the dead are among the favorite disguises. Halloween also retains some features that harken back to the original harvest holiday of Samhain, such as the customs of bobbing for apples and carving vegetables, as well as the fruits, nuts, and spices cider associated with the day.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter. During the course of these hi-jinks, many of the people would imitate the fairies and go from house to house begging for treats.
Failure to supply the treats would usually result in practical jokes being visited on the people living in that home ("trick-or-treat"). Since the fairies were abroad on this night, an offering of food or milk was frequently left for them on the steps of the house, so the people living there could gain the blessings of the "good folk" for the coming year. Many of the households would also leave out a "dumb supper" for the spirits of the departed.
As large numbers of European immigrants came to America, they brought their varied Halloween customs with them. Because of the rigid Protestant belief systems that characterized early New England, celebration of Halloween in colonial times was extremely limited there. It was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups, as well as the American Indians, meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included "play parties," public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other's fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland's potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today's "trick-or-treat" tradition. Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors. In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers, than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day.
Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque" out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during this time. By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats.
It must not be forgotten however, that Samhain was also a religious festival. Celtic religion was very closely tied to the Earth. Their great legends are concerned with momentous happenings which took place around the time of Samhain. Many of the great battles and legends of kings and heroes center on this night. Many of the legends concern the promotion of fertility of the earth and the insurance of the continuance of the lives of the people through the dark winter season.
Even today, many "followers" of various pagan religions celebrate Samhain as a religious festival viewing it as a memorial for their friends who have passed-on. It is still a night to practice various forms of divination concerning future events. It is considered a time to wrap up old projects, take stock of ones life, and initiate new projects for the coming year. Contrary to what many Christians and Hollywood would have the general populace believe, blood sacrifice is not practiced by modern day "followers" of Witchcraft, Wicca or Druidism. There may be some people who think they are practicing Wicca by performing blood sacrifices, but this is certainly not condoned by reputable practitioners of the modern day Pagan religions. As a matter of fact, about half the "rituals" the so-called, self-proclaimed, and oft misinformed, modern "druids" perform today, are either out of place, or out of time.
Today Halloween is becoming once again an adult holiday or masquerade, like Mardi-Gras. Men and women in every disguise imaginable are taking to the streets of big American cities and parading past grinningly carved, candlelit Jack-O-Lanterns, re- enacting customs with a lengthy pedigree. Their masked antics challenge, mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night, of the soul, and of the otherworld that becomes our world on this night of reversible possibilities, inverted roles, and transcendence. In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.