Will you be celebrating Halloween tonight? When I was young people in Britain hardly noticed this ancient festival and concentrated on getting a penny for the guy to burn on November 5th.
Today, we are much more likely to be bringing death and spookiness into our homes, plus lots of pumpkins of course. But what does it all mean and where did it come from?
We have come to think of Halloween as being an American thing but, in fact, it has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which celebrated the new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. That explains why there will be so many ghosts out and about tonight!
In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter. Huge sacred bonfires were built, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. We don’t tell fortunes any longer (maybe we should) but we certainly dress up.
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. But where do pumpkins come in?
As we know, Halloween started with the Celts in Northern France, Ireland and Britain. People in Ireland kept up the tradition longer than elsewhere and to distract spirits from settling into houses and farms, they would carve rudimentary faces into large turnips, and set candles inside. The turnip lanterns would rest along roadways and next to gates, to both light the way for travellers and caution any passing fairies against invading. When these people emigrated to America they took this tradition with them but swopped carving turnips for the bigger and brighter pumpkin. So now you know – its fine to celebrate Halloween – we are just doing what our ancestors did.
By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It’s probable that he church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related church-sanctioned holiday. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils.
The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
Happy Halloween everyone.