Most people think of Hallowe’en as a night where children dress up as ghosts and ghouls and go door-to-door to collect sweets, under the guise of ‘trick or treating.’ October 31st now seems as much a part of the calendar as Christmas or Easter, but what are the origins of this unique festival?
The origins of Hallowe’en differ, according to your spiritual beliefs. Pagans insist it was a creation of the Ancient Celts, while many Christians attribute its beginning to Pope Boniface IV.
The Ancient Celts
Pagans believe that Hallowe’en was originated by the early Celts. Before the Medieval era and the introduction of Christianity, the Ancient Celts divided their year into two halves: the ‘light’ half and the ‘dark’ half. As you might expect, the light half held the warmer, brighter months, when the days are longer and the dark half marked the months of autumn and winter when there are less daylight hours, the leaves drop and the temperature grows colder. The Celts marked the end of the warmer seasons, with the festival of Samhain, towards the end of October. The Celts only observed two ‘seasons’ each year: summer and winter. The word itself means ‘summer’s end.’
The setting of the sun at Samhain is the beginning of the Pagan New Year and, for true Pagans, this is where the celebrations begin. During the day, families would undertake a ‘fall’ cleaning, throwing out all their old detritus to make way for the new things that would be brought in in the coming year. All fires in the house were extinguished, but a giant bonfire was lit outside, at nightfall. The fire was a means for sacrifice; crops and animals were burnt as offerings to the Celtic gods, accompanied by prayers for the future. These fires were considered to be sacred and also symbolised the cleansing of the old year, in preparation of the new. The fire was also the focal point for the celebrations. Ancient Pagans would dance around them, the dances often telling stories of life and death or representing the turning of the Wheel of Life.
The Tradition of Dressing Up
The tradition of dressing up, which we know so well in the modern world, originally served three main purposes. Firstly, it was to honour the spirits of the dead, who were freed from the Otherworld on this particular night. It was believed that the Lord of the Dead released the spirits of those who were trapped in animal bodies and those who were trapped in the underworld, to move into their next incarnations. The wearing of costumes represented those souls coming into the physical world.
However, not all the spirits were welcome ones - some were thought to be of wicked intent, destroying crops, harming livestock and seeking revenge on those who had wronged them in life. In this instance, the costumes were used as a disguise, to hide the identity of the wearer from malevolent spirits who may have more than incarnation in mind.
Thirdly, costumes were used as a means to honour the Celtic gods of harvest, livestock and fields who had helped them through the difficulties of the previous year. Whilst dressed up, the clan or villagers would ask the gods to extend their protective powers into the year to come.
Prophecy and Prediction
Samhain was also used as a time for prophecy and prediction. It was believed that the division between the worlds of the living and the dead became weaker at this time and druids, priests and shamans would be able to communicate with spirits and gain some insight into what was to come. Predictions were often made through a variety of techniques, such as scrying, clairvoyance and the casting of the Ogham rune-stones. When the celebrations were over, the villagers would each light a torch from the sacred bonfire, which would then be used to light the hearths within their own homes. These fires were revered, symbolising the protection of the gods through the coming winter. They were often kept ablaze continually, for months, and any fire that was allowed to burn out was thought to signify the advent of bad luck to that home.
Pumpkins and Apples
It is generally accepted that the transition from Samhain to Hallowe’en can be attributed to Pope Boniface IV. Around 800 AD, as Christianity began to spread through Europe, Pope Boniface attempted to ‘Christianise’ many of the Pagan festivals. He dedicated November 1st as ‘All Saints Day,’ during which Christians would celebrate and honour the saints and martyrs associated with that religion. He also created ‘All Hallows Eve’ when it was thought – much as in the Pagan faith – that the souls of the dead were released from Purgatory and allowed to walk the Earth. Families were encouraged to keep graveside vigils for their loved ones and to leave food and water for them. Often these vigils were held by candlelight and these were soon replaced by hollowed-out pumpkins. There is, however, an old, Irish legend about a miser named Jack, who was deemed to mean to enter Heaven, but too wily to go to Hell, so he was damned to wander for eternity, carrying a ‘Jack O’ Lantern’ to light his way.
The tradition of apple-bobbing and toffee-apples is attributed to the Roman influences on the festival. Pomona was the Roman Goddess of Fruit Trees and Gardens, symbolised by an apple. Some scholars believe that these were used as part of the Samhain celebrations to offer up thanks for the previous harvest.
Today, Hallowe’en is seen by many as harmless fun, and just another chance to dress up and throw a party. For many Christians, it is now a time of reflection to consider those who have passed on and to offer up prayers for their souls and thanks for their lives. For many Pagans, however, it still signifies the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Wiccans, Druids, Shamans and many other branches of the Pagan faith keep the old traditions alive, meeting in fields and dressing in robes to dance around bonfires and bid farewell to the warmth of the summer and embrace the chilly winter evenings.