Call it Halloween; Call it All Hallows Eve, Samhain, The Festival of the Dead or All Souls Day. Call it whatever you want, October 31 is indisputably the spookiest night of the year, and it has been for some 2,000 years or more. Originating as a celebration of the New Year for ancient Celts, this autumn festival has survived through the ages (though sometimes in “costume,” if you’ll pardon the pun) and remains one of the most celebrated of modern holidays.
In celebration, Peter Stone is showcasing some of its spookiest Halloween-themed creations to help you get into the spirit of things. Watch out! Bats, Cats, Witches, and Magic abound, as well as some ancient Celtic designs that hearken back to the origins of the holiday.
The Wandering Dead
The Celts of pre-Christian times divided the year into four parts, with the start of their new year falling on the first day of November. As a pastoral people, their calendar was built around seasonal change, and November 1 marked the end of the year: the crops had been harvested and stored, the livestock were secured for the winter, and the world around them was dying. It was both an end and a beginning in the endless natural cycle. To mark this turning point, they celebrated Samhain (pronounced “Sah-ween,” or “Sow-en”), starting at sunset on October 31, as a way to transition from one year into the next.
The Celts believed that on this night, the souls of those who had died during the previous year were released to travel to the otherworld, and thus were nearer to the mortal sphere than at any other time. For this reason, they held feasts to honor those who had died, lit bonfires to help them on their way, and even dressed in animal skin costumes so that the spirits would not recognize them and want to stay nearby.
It was believed that the veil between worlds was thinnest on this night, allowing all manner of supernatural beings to roam the dark hours of the evening. In addition to the wandering dead, Samhain was a night of spirits, fairies, and ghouls. Magic was believed to be more powerful on such a night as well, and Samhain tradition often included fortune telling, the revealing of prophecy, and communicating with spirits.
A New Face for an Old Tradition
With the rise of Christianity in the early centuries of the first millennium A.D., pagan holidays became the targets of the Catholic Church. In an effort to replace pagan beliefs with Christian ones, the church named November 1, “All Saints Day,” and designated that day to honor all the Christian saints, particularly those who didn’t already have a holiday. By seizing the holiday and gilding it with Christianity, the Catholic Church hoped to smooth the way for the pagans’ ultimate conversion.
The old beliefs associated with Samhain refused to die out, however. The concept of the traveling dead was too powerful a belief to be replaced by the diluted Christian feast honoring the saints, and the traditions of the pagan holiday continued to be celebrated by the Celts. The influence of Christianity did have some effect on the original beliefs -by branding the earlier religion’s supernatural deities as evil, and associating them with the devil. The blameless spirits that haunted early Samhain celebrations in time came to be thought of as malicious and evil, and practitioners of the old religious ceremonies were labeled witches and devil worshipers.
All Hallow Mass
Although the origin of the word “Samhain” can be traced to the Gaelic words for “summer’s end,” the transformation from Samhain to Halloween was a more convoluted process that owes much to the aforementioned Christian influence.
The mass that was said on All Saints Day was called “All Hallow Mass,” or the mass to honor all who are hallowed. The night before the holiday eventually came to be called All Hallows Evening, and was further modified through abbreviation into our modern term “Halloween.”
The Evolution of Halloween
Halloween traditions have evolved over the years, and the modern holiday trappings (trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples) may have seemingly little connection with the original Samhain customs. Virtually every modern Halloween tradition has ancient roots, however, if one cares to look for them. Apple-bobbing was a form of divination, meant to bring good luck or marriage to anyone who could manage to catch the apple. Masks and costumes hearken back to the days when Celtic villagers feared and hid from the wandering spirits of the night.
As part of the All Soul’s Day parades in England, beggars would receive cakes (called “soul cakes”) in return for a promise to pray for the dead relatives of the benefactor. Combined with the older tradition of placing bowls of fruit and food outside one’s door on the eve of Samhain to placate the wandering spirits, this tradition has evolved into the modern-day practice of Trick-or-Treating.
Go Carve a Turnip?
The carving of the pumpkin can be associated with an old Irish folk tale: A miserable man by the name of Jack trapped the devil and extracted a promise that he would not go to Hell when he died. Upon his death, years later, he certainly hadn’t earned his way into Heaven, and the devil kept his promise and wouldn’t allow him into Hell, either. Jack was forced to forever walk the darkness between Heaven and Hell, but the devil took pity on him and provided him with an ember from the fires of Hell to light his way. Jack placed the ember into a hollowed out turnip for safe-keeping.
Painted and illuminated turnips, potatoes and gourds became a symbol for damned souls, and they were often left on Irish doorsteps to frighten away ghosts and spirits. When the Irish immigrated to America following the Great Potato Famine in the 1800s, they found that turnips were not readily available, and substituted pumpkins instead.
Many Wiccans and pagans still celebrate Samhain in a traditional way, honoring the ancient customs with religious reverence. For some, Samhain is a way to celebrate their ancestors’ memories, to request advice, protection and guidance from beyond the veil. Samhain rituals include celebrating the end of the harvest, honoring the ancestors, honoring the God and Goddess, celebrating the cycle of Life and Death, and holding séances or meditation groups to communicate with spirits.