To find the origin of Halloween, you have to look to the festival of Samhain in Ireland’s Celtic past. Samhain has three distinct traditions. First, it was an important fire festival, celebrated over the evening of 31 October and throughout the following day. The flames of old fires had to be extinguished and ceremonially re-lit by druids.
It was also a festival very like the modern New Year’s Day in that it carried the idea of casting out the old and moving into the new. To our pagan ancestors it marked the end of the pastoral cycle – a time when all the crops would have been harvested and placed in storage for the winter ahead and when cattle etc. would be brought in from the fields and selected for slaughter or breeding.
It was also, as the last day of the Celtic year, the time when the souls of the departed would return to their former homes and when potentially malevolent spirits were released from the Otherworld and were visible to mankind.
The Celts celebrated four major festivals each year. The origin of Halloween lies in the Celt’s Autumn festival which was held on the first day of the 11th month, the month known as November in English but as Samhain in Irish. The original Celtic seasons were –
- Imbolc: 1st February
- Beltaine: 1st May
- Lughnasa: 1st August
- Samhain: 1st November
Samhain continued to be celebrated even after the arrival of Christianity in Europe. In the 7th century Pope Boniface, attempting to lead people away from pagan celebrations and rituals and into a more ‘acceptable’ Christian event, declared 1st November to be All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Day.
The evening before became known as Hallows’ Eve, and from there the origin of Halloween. It was considered a time when beings and souls from the Otherworld were said to come into our world. It is still the custom in some areas to set a place at the Samhain feast for the souls of dead kinfolk and to tell tales of one’s forebears. However, the souls of thankful kin could return to bestow blessings just as easily as that of a murdered person could return to wreak revenge.
To ward off the evil let loose at Samhain, huge bonfires were lit and people wore ugly masks and disguises to confuse the spirits and stop the dead identifying individuals who they may have disliked during their own lifetime and whom they are seeking to find.
They also deliberately made a lot of noise to unsettle the spirits and drive them away from their communities. Some, however, would leave out food hoping that their generosity would be sufficient to appease the spirits. For some, the tradition of leaving food in the home – usually a plate of champ – was more about offering hospitality to their own ancestors.
In order to prevent unwelcome spirits entering their homes, the Celts created menacing faces out of turnips and left them on their doorsteps. Adding a lit candle to the hollowed out face gave added protection.
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