“The dead might be looking in”: the origins of Halloween

Posted on October 31, 2012 by Keri

By Keri O’Shea

As we sit in our lit, heated homes, awaiting the arrival of Trick or Treaters who invariably arrive with a watchful parent or two these days, it may be hard to recall just what the arrival of Winter may have meant for our ancestors. And yet, we mark the same date they did: despite the thousands of years intervening between us and them, and all of the events and changes which have happened in the interim, summer’s end – or Samhain, to give it its elder title – matters to many of us. We look forward to it, or we celebrate it, or engage with it in some way. That in itself is quite remarkable – but many people have no idea why they do what they do at this time of year; why they wear the masks, or light the lanterns…

Although much about the Celts is shrouded in mystery, or has been handed down to us by biased sources, we know that for our ancestors, Samhain was the beginning of a new cycle of light and dark, and as such, one of the most important – if not the most important – festivals of their year: it meant the approach of winter, a truly gruelling time of year, yet one still loaded with the promise of the spring that would follow. Life for our ancestors – those of us with Northern European heritage that is – would have been incredibly harsh during the months of darkness. Make no mistake, these were tough people: Roman historian Tacitus recalls the suppression of the Anglesey Druids by describing a “serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks…In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches…” Any army willing and ready to face down the might of Imperial Rome in order to protect their holy lands would know and understand what Winter entailed in our inhospitable climate – and they would ready themselves.

One of the key associations of Samhain was the slaughter of livestock: at this time of the year, farmers would take an inventory of their animals, and kill large numbers of them. Sheltering and feeding an animal over the winter was not as important as sheltering and feeding themselves, after all; this may also be one of the ways in which the festival comes to be associated with death – and we know that the Celts once made human sacrifices, which may once have occurred at Samhain too. Indeed, this may also explain the bonfires which have migrated to November 5th in Britain, and the ‘burning of the guy’ which is now associated with Guy Fawkes may have its roots in old Samhain practices. Samhain is a festival and time of year heavily associated with fire: fire would be used to cook the slaughtered animals (perhaps giving us the term ‘bonfire’ – ‘bone-fire’) but it also had a deeper, ritual significance. Fire is also associated with protection and purification, and the huge bonfire which would be lit by each community would serve to unite them, as they moved into a time of threat, both from this world – and the Otherworld, the land of the dead, which was at its closest at Samhain.

The Celts believed that the Otherworld not only existed, but could be accessed: water and springs were particularly associated as points through which spirits could pass, and when at certain times of the year the divide between both worlds was at its thinnest, this meant that the spirits of the deceased could, in some circumstances, return to their families. Samhain was a time of year to honour the deceased, and even to urge them to rejoin the clan: there are some indications of a place at the table being laid for them, and of a light being lit and displayed to guide them back. But where the company of some spirits was desirable, other spirits were abroad, and these creatures might seek to do harm; like the Celtic belief in faeries and similar beings, the supernatural was an ambiguous thing, and faeries or spirits could be actively hostile to humans. The phenomenon of displaying the grinning death’s head of the Jack Lantern is a much later adaptation of the earlier practice, but some sources hold that it was intended to scare away the spirits of the dead who might not be so welcome…and the same may well be true of the old practise of ‘guising’, donning a mask or making oneself look as unseemly as possible to repel the influence of the malign spirits in their midst.

For all the hardship which the Romans inflicted upon the native populations of Northern Europe, their culture with regards the existing practices and festivals they encountered was often surprisingly pragmatic. Samhain continued under their rule, because they recognised in it elements which were familiar to them. The worship of Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees, and the Roman festival of the dead, Feralia, gradually became associated with Samhain. The departure of the Romans and the arrival of Christianity didn’t quell the Celtic New Year either, at least until Christianity as a force became more organised and doctrinal.

Fundamentalist Christianity still finds itself biting its nails about the continuation of the ‘Pagan festival’ of Halloween. Similar anxieties were held by some religious authorities hundreds of years ago. As a religion which essentially sells tickets to the afterlife, it was probably inevitable that it would eventually clash with a pre-Christian festival which espouses the belief that the dead are free agents (at least during certain times of the year) and that spirits have the power to return and influence the living, rather than being safely contained in Heaven (or Hell). This is perhaps why in the 9th Century Pope Gregory III moved an existing Christian festival, All Hallows Day, from May to November. It was a tactical move on the part of the Church, as outright suppression of the event would not have curried favour with congregations who still kept the festival. Still, the celebration of All Saints’ Day meant that Samhain would come to be known as All Hallows Eve – and then, of course, Hallowe’en. Interestingly, the dead under consideration were now Christian dead, but the association of the time of year with the dead was maintained, and instead of going door to door seeking fuel for the annual fire, now children might go door-to-door seeking alms, or asking for ‘soul cakes’ – baked for souls in Purgatory.

And so the festival survived renamed: it got through subsequent religious clamp-downs, Protestantism and Puritanism, and in the period of freedom which followed Puritanism was probably a decent excuse to have fun, play pranks and do all of the things which had been forbidden. Now it’s a secular holiday, and at the time of writing we’re left with a massively popular festival which reflects a little of all the things it’s ever been, whilst continuing to grow. The turnips used for lanterns in Europe have been replaced with the pumpkins native to America (the country responsible for a large upsurge in Halloween celebrations since the 19th Century) and the penitents collecting for the dead now arrive dressed as horror archetypes begging for candy, but still they come, still they keep the date.

For me, I like to reflect on the fact that we’ve kept this celebration which marks the start of the Winter, and on what we know of its origins. We may not fear the elements the way that our ancestors did, but their perseverance is why we’re here now, and the significance of the date has held. This time of year has mattered, in one way or another, for centuries. Happy Halloween everyone.

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