With the approach of Halloween upon us, we examine the history, roots and origins of this worldwide celebration.
Halloween or Samhain (pronounced Sowain) is celebrated by countless people around the globe and is commonly associated with witches, ghouls, dressing up and trick or treating. But where do these traditions come from? What are their origins and how did it become the fun celebration we know and love today?
Let’s delve into the past and discover where it all began!
Halloween, as it is now known, is thought by many to have its roots in ancient Paganism, as do many of our modern day Christian celebrations, such as Easter (Ostara) and Christmas (Yuletide). But is this assumption correct?
It is well known that the Church, ever since Emperor Constantine came to rule the Roman Empire, repackaged Christian celebrations to coincide with Pagan holidays to make them more palatable to the masses. If the Pagan culture was absorbed rather than imposing forced change, Christianity would be met with less resistance and was a strategic move to convert and control the population.
But it is a little known fact that it also worked the other way around too. Was Halloween originally a Christian festival later adopted by Pagans? Here we look at the facts…
The word Halloween derives from the word Hallow - which simply means Holy, or set aside for holy or divine use. Christians needed a day where they could honour their Hallowed Saints, which gave rise to ‘All Saints Day’ or ‘Hallow’s Day’. Which meant that of course the evening prior was named ‘Hallow’s Eve’, which was usually celebrated with feasting.
Originally ‘Hallow’s Day’ was celebrated in February – it coincided with an ancient Pagan Roman festival Feralia; a remembrance of all those who had died, related or not. This is the current equivalent of All Souls Day which is nowadays celebrated by the Christian church on 2nd November.
In fact, Feralia and All Souls Day are directly connected with each other. In the year 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV decreed that February 21 would be known as “All Saints Day”, a general holiday dedicated to all Catholic saints who did not have a specific saint’s day of their own. Later that year, Boniface ordered that the date for All Saints Day would be changed again, from February 21 to May 13, which was the last day of another ancient Roman festival period dedicated to the spirits known as the Lemuria. Afterwards Pope Gregory III changed the day once again to November 1, and it has remained that way ever since, with all Souls Day the following day, where people could honour their own deceased loved ones. This period of prayer and remembrance was collectively called ‘Allhallowtide’ or ‘Hallowmas’.
Hallowmas was originally a solemn time. A time to reflect, pray and honour Saints and those faithfully departed. A far cry from today’s fun and games! So how did a Christian Holy day become the spooky ghoulish celebration we know and love today?
For this we need to look at our Pagan roots.
Samhain (pronounced sow-en) marks the end of the bright half of the year. It marks the turning of the wheel and is situated roughly halfway between the Autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Traditionally, this was the end of the Harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year, where nature’s decay begins and vegetation starts to die back. It also signals the end of the grazing season when only breeding animals were kept for the end of year slaughter. The word Samhain derives from Old Irish, meaning end of summer, and similar celebrations were held in Scotland, Wales and England to mark this time.
An old Irish saying goes; if any crops are left out after November 1st they may be spoiled by the Faeries!
Food was offered to the gods and the dead with great feasts being held, enjoying the time of bounty before the darkness of winter sets in.
The ancient Celts and Druids followed the lunar calendar and so the actual day of Samhain would change slightly depending on the cycle of the moon, however it was always approximately this time of year. Over centuries, the Christian holiday of Hallowmas blended with Samhain. Both peoples honouring their dead and celebrating with feasts. Perhaps Christianity and Paganism aren’t that many poles apart?
One Christian tradition adopted for Halloween was the making of soul cakes.
A soul cake, also known as a soulmass-cake, is a small round cake (though they more resemble a biscuit, with sweet spices) was traditionally made for Halloween, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day to commemorate the dead.The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, are given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who go from door to door during the days of Allhallowtide singing and saying prayers "for the souls of the givers and their friends". The practice in England dates to the medieval period (but is likely much older),and was continued there until the 1930s and in some areas of Lancashire, my home county, the custom has continued into modern times. My mother and grandmother often made soul cakes and gave them to the trick or treaters who knock at our door. Our name for them are ‘Sad’ cakes, for reasons unknown. I can only hypothesise that the cakes were a symbol of mourning and honouring the dead, which could be described as ‘sad’ or solemn, which fits with the original Christian origin of Hallowmas itself.
It’s a fair assumption to think this old tradition gave rise to our modern day trick or treating!
The ancient Celts and Druids also believed that at this time of year the veil between the living and the dead was at it’s thinnest. Spirits could cross over to our realm and walk the earth, good and bad! People would carve turnips with scary faces to ward off evil spirits and dress up in costume to fool ghosts and demons into thinking they were someone else.
Jack ‘O Lantern
According to the legend, Jack was a devious fellow who outsmarted the devil time and time again. As told by history.com, Jack, the town drunk with a clever side, met the devil one fateful night. The duo shared a drink and, too cheap to pay for his booze, Jack convinced Satan to morph into a coin that he could use to pay for their beverages. As soon as he did, Jack put the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross. The devil was unable to change back into his original form, and Jack held him that way until Satan agreed not to take his soul. Sneaky!
Next, the shifty swindler convinced the devil to climb up a tree to steal a piece of fruit. He quickly carved the sign of the cross into the tree bark. Again, the devil couldn’t come down until he agreed not to bother Jack for another 10 years.
Shortly after his meeting with the devil, Jack died. As legend goes, God would not accept Jack into heaven and sent him down to visit the devil in hell. But the devil kept his promise. He wouldn’t let Jack into hell, either, and imprisoned him to an even darker fate. The devil sent Jack into the dark night to roam the world for eternity, with only a coal to light his way. Jack lit the coal, put it in a hollowed-out turnip and has been drifting through the world, scaring children ever since.
Townsfolk began to refer to this figure as “Jack of the lantern,” and shortly thereafter “Jack o’ lantern.” People began to carve their own lanterns out of turnips, beets, potatoes and eventually pumpkins in hopes of warding away any ghostly spirits.
Apple bobbing is a tradition that harks all the way back to Roman times and to the original aforementioned festival of Feralia. Back then, it was an extremely important event that brought families together. On the second day of Feralia, Pomona was honored. Pomona is the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol is the apple.During the annual apple-bobbing festivities, young people would try and bite into apples either floating on water or hanging from a string. It was thought that the first person to bite into an apple would be the next to marry. If it was not for traditions like these, most of these people would never have the opportunity to meet. In this aspect, bobbing for apples was more than a simplistic tradition as it was one that carried the power to alter the lives and futures of entire families and subsequent generations.
What is important to remember is that prior to large-scale urbanisation, most people were spread out over large areas. Life was hard and so was travel. Children often did not make it into adulthood. Without a sufficient number of children for labor, families would perish due to cold, starvation and disease. As a result, fertility and marriage were extremely important for immediate survival, as well as the continuance of family blood lines.
Your Future Husband!
This tradition was passed down from my grandmother, who always said that if you eat an apple in front of a mirror, by candlelight, at midnight on Halloween, you will see the face of your future husband! I’ve always been too petrified to do it! I think the sight of my own face by candlelight is scary enough!
After gathering all the facts, myths and interpretations, there is one thing that we can probably agree on. Halloween is a hotch potch of many cultures, traditions and holy days, some dating to Roman times and some from the modern day. This is what is so wonderful about our evolution. We can combine and enjoy festivities and adopt practices if they work for us. I work with many varieties of magick in my witchcraft. Some spells and traditions are from far and wide, from Hawaii, to Japan, China, Russia, Africa and Europe. Witchcraft is universal and whatever methods we use from our own cultures or others, we pick the path that suits us and create love and healing light in our world.
On that note I shall return to making spells for the village folk.