Children, Costumes and Candy. The stuff of which Halloween is made.
On the surface, it would seem that these are essentially, Halloween. But there’s more to this, my favorite of holidays, than meets the eye.
Halloween is children and spice, and everything scary and nice; but it’s also rooted in years of history and ancient tradition.
The eve of Hallows
Halloween derives from two words: Hallows (Saints) and evening. It is properly known as All Hallow’s Evening, or the Eve of Hallows, and literally as Saints’ Evening.
Celebrated yearly throughout the world on October 31st, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Saints’ Day, the festivity is said to commemorate the dead, including saints, martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.
There are, however, much darker and decidedly more mystical roots to the tradition.
Celts versus Christians
While those of the Christian persuasion insist that Halloween was instituted by the church in remembrance of the departed – saints and loved ones – who have journeyed to the afterlife, numerous scholars point out that the feast is actually rooted in ancient pagan tradition, and was eventually Christianized to serve the purposes of the church.
Studies point to Celtic harvest festivals, and even pagan festivals of the dead as the true origins of Halloween. The Gaelic festival of Samhain is thought to be the deepest root of what has now become a night of frenetic candy-collecting, costumed activity.
The darker half
The festival of Samhain – which is also known as Calan Gaeaf – signified that the season of harvest was coming to an end, giving way to the “darker half” of the year; the beginning of winter. The darker half of the year heralded a drop in temperature, shorter days, longer nights, and – as believed by the Gaels – the spirits from the Otherworld.
It was widely believed that this was the time when fairies were most active, and could move in and out of the human world with greater ease. The souls of the dead – both evil and benign – were also said to re-visit their homes, to tell tales of their forbearers, bestow blessings upon family, or (if you so unfortunately happened to be related to a vengeful spirit), wreak havoc on the living.
Feasts were thrown, as an offering and appeasement to the spirits, and family members were careful to leave a setting at the table for departed kin. Many other rituals evolved: Some as a form of protection from evil spirits and wicked fairies; others, as a way of communicating with the dead.
Fire and guise
To ward off evil spirits, particularly those of fairies looking to kidnap mortals, bonfires were lit throughout villages. People stayed close to home, or walked with their clothing turned inside-out, in hopes of befuddling the spirits. They carried salt and iron to deter fairies with evil intent.
The practice of carving lanterns from turnips, often fashioned with faces cut into them, became common. The lanterns – which were set on windowsills or hung by door frames – served not only to light the dark night, but also to represent the spirits and keep them from entering the home.
Food was often left out on doorsteps; an offering to fairies to earn their favour. Villagers would also go from house to house, to collect food for the Samhain feast. Many believe these customs to be the origin of the “trick-or-treating” tradition.
People wore guises; costumes or masks to confuse evil fairies and spirits. Guising or mumming as it was called was a popular ritual at winter festivals, but became all the rage on Samhain night; the eve of greatest spirit activity. The tradition remains alive and well to this day, as children (both the young and young-at-heart) don costumes: Witches and wizards, goblins and ghosts, heroes and hags, sprites and saints parade the streets; no longer quite so mindful of being abducted by fairies, but always on the lookout for a scare or two.
Mumming came about hand-in-hand with pranking, it seemed.
The Gaels would go from house to house before nightfall, dressed in their guises, to collect food for the Samhain feast. Some would imitate mischievous spirits, and play pranks on the household. Thus, the birth of the “trick” part of the “treat” equation.
Beyond the veil
People of the time, especially Wiccans, believed that during the Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest, thereby making it easier to communicate with the deceased. For this reason, they gathered together on the Samhain for one of their two most important meetings or sabbats to celebrate the dead, and to go beyond the veil and communicate with loved ones, pets, ancestors, friends who had gone on to the afterlife.
Interestingly enough, the word “witch” comes from the Old English wicce, which means “wise woman.” Historical accounts reveal that prior to religious persecution; Wiccan members were highly respected people; seers and visionaries of their time.
They likewise practiced divination of the future; hopeful that the spirits would reveal who they might marry, perhaps; or how many children they would have; or what the coming year held in store.
At these rituals, it was tradition to eat seasonal foods, such as apples and nuts. After peeling an apple, the peel would be tossed over the shoulder, and then examined upon landing on the ground. If it formed a shape close to a letter, this was believed to be the first letter of the name of the future spouse. Sometimes, apples were bobbed for from a tub of water, which has since become a traditional Halloween game. Nuts, on the other hand, were roasted. If the nuts bunched together during the roasting process, this was received as a sign that the couple would stay together. Egg whites were dropped in water, and the pieces that would break apart foretold the number of future children. The behaviour and flight of crows was also said to reveal specific things about the future.
Many of the rituals were carried out at places in Ireland that were strongly linked to Samhain. One of these was Oweynagat (“cave of the cats”), near Rathcroghan in County Roscommon. It was believed that a host of otherworldly beings emerged from the “cave of cats” every Samhain; this is also one reason for the evolution of the black cat as a Halloween and witches’ symbol.
Halloween, in all its religion-generated controversy, has today become the world’s second largest greeting card-grosser and money making holiday.
It has spread across the shores of Europe, the country of its origin, to North America, and almost all parts of the world.
Despite the inevitable commercialism in the undying quest for big bucks, I look forward to it every year; this holiday in which boys and girls all-too-willingly transform into boils and ghouls. Perhaps it is the creative spark of it all; or maybe my affinity with things left-off-centre. Or it could be because it is the one day of the year that “strange” is “normal.” Or maybe I just love candy. All of the above? Definitely. These are my reasons for Happy Halloween-ing.
A spooktacular Halloween to you and yours!