At this time of year, it’s not unusual to hear people in England complain of the ‘American import’ of Halloween and its lanterns, costumes, and trick or treating.
While it’s true that Halloween celebrations have become as commercialised as Christmas, in the USA and increasingly here in the UK, it’s also true that it was our ancestors of Celtic heritage who brought these customs to the New World.
The name for October 31st, Halloween, points to its origins as ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, the night before the Christian holy day of All Hallows, but this was not introduced until the fourth century, when Christians were no longer persecuted as a way of remembering those who died for their faith, as there were too many for each to have their own special day. It was originally celebrated on May 13th. Sources attributed to the early English historian Bede record that by the early eighth century, churches in England were already celebrating All Saints on November 1st, and Pope Gregory IV made this the official date in 837, so that the crowds that thronged to Rome for the festival might be fed from the harvest bounty. November 2nd became known as All Souls, a day to remember all who have died, especially in the past year.
But the origins of both Halloween and All Saints Day go much further back. The early Christian Church adopted elements of native rituals and spiritual practice and adapted them to draw on ancient wisdom while teaching about the new faith.
From sunset on October 31st through to sunset on November 1st, the ancient Celts celebrated the feast of Samhain, pronounced (sow-en), often translated as ‘summer’s end’. Elements of Samhain celebration are the roots of Halloween and All Saints as we know them today.
In Celtic tradition, the year is divided into two halves associated with the dark and the light. The dark half begins at sunset on October 31st with Samhain and the cycle ends when the light half begins at sunset on April 30th through to sunset on May 1st, with the festival of Beltane. Samhain and Beltane are two of the four main festivals of the Celtic calendar. Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It is about half way between the autumn equinox (equality of day and night - September 21) and the winter solstice (the shortest day and longest night - December 21st).
It was a time to take stock of the herds and food supplies. Cattle were brought down to the winter pastures after six months in the higher summer pastures. It was also the time to choose which animals would be slaughtered for the winter, because it is when meat will keep since the freeze has come and since summer grass is gone and free foraging is no longer possible. The resulting bones were burnt – hence ‘bone-fires’ – for the ash. In the Celtic world, cattle were the main form of wealth and the centre of agricultural and pastoral life.
In medieval Ireland the festival marked the end of the season for trade and warfare and was an ideal date for tribal gatherings. Many tales and events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain night. Gatherings of royalty and warriors on Samhain made it an ideal setting for such tales, in the same way that many Arthurian tales are set at courtly gatherings at Christmas or Pentecost.
Sacred fires were kindled on hilltops, to mimic the Sun, help the ‘powers of growth’ and hold back the decay and darkness of winter, symbolically burning all harmful influences. People doused their hearth fires on Samhain night, then took flames from the bonfire back to their homes. Each family then solemnly re-lit its hearth from the communal bonfire, thus bonding the families of the village together around the shared flame.
Samhain celebrations involved sharing a communal feast that included ancestors as guests of honour. While children did rituals and played games with involved nuts and apples, the elders reviewed events of the past year for the benefit of those who had passed on, to encourage the dead to continue to take an interest in the affairs of the living. Samhain was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between the living and the dead could more easily be crossed. The souls of the dead were thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Places were set at the dinner table and by the fire to welcome them. The belief that souls of thankful kin return home on one night of the year to bestow blessings has ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.
Trick-or-treating comes from the custom of going door-to-door collecting food for Samhain feasts, fuel for Samhain bonfires and/or offerings for the souls of the dead. Records of ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’ as part of Samhain date from at least the 16th century, though the tradition may be much older. Mumming and guising involved people going door-to-door in disguise, often reciting verses in exchange for food. It evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf.
On visiting each house they recited verses, and the farmer was expected to donate food. If the farmer donated food he could expect good fortune; not doing so would bring misfortune. In Scotland, young men went house-to-house with masked, veiled, painted or blackened faces, threatening to do mischief if they were not welcomed. Playing pranks at Samhain is recorded in the Scottish Highlands as far back as 1736 and was also common in Ireland, which led to Samhain being nicknamed ‘Mischief Night’ in some parts. Wearing costumes at Halloween spread to England in the 20th century, as did the custom of playing pranks. ‘Mischief Night’ remains popular with young people in the north of England, and is usually marked with an evening of pranks on October 30th.
Guisers or pranksters out on Samhain night would light their way with turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces. They were also set on windowsills. By those who made them, the lanterns were variously said to represent the spirits or supernatural beings, or were used to ward off evil spirits.
On the Isle of Man, rich in Celtic heritage, the Manx people celebrate Hop-tu-Naa on October 31st, believed to be the original New Year's Eve. Traditionally, children dress as scary beings, carry turnip lanterns and go from house to house asking for sweets or money. Samhain is also often described as the Celtic New Year.
Over time, the feast of Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead, merged with the Christian feasts of All Saints'/All Souls' Days to create what we know today as Halloween.