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  • Halloween - its History and Origins

    vintage halloween card
    Vintage Halloween greeting card from the USA, circa 1940

    Halloween is an annual festival observed on October 31, celebrating the eve of Hallowmas or All Saints Day on November 1. Largely appropriated by the Americans as a spooky celebration involving dressing up and the exchange of candy, Halloween has its roots in the Gaelic/Celtic festival of Samhain, an old Irish word that translates roughly to "summer's end”.

    Samhain was a complex festival of great importance to the Gaelic peoples, who recognised the importance of balancing the intertwining forces of existence: darkness and light, night and day, cold and heat, death and life. The Celtic year was divided into only two seasons: the light and the dark. Samhain was particularly important because it celebrated not only the coming of the dark season but also the start of the Celtic New Year. The most magically potent time of Samhain was its eve, called Oidhche Shamhna, when huge feasts were prepared and great bonfires (in Gaelic the ‘tine cnámh’ or bone fire) lit by Druid priests. People and their livestock would walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames. Personal prayers were also thrown into the fire and gifts offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. It was also believed that the boundaries between the living world and the Otherworld were weakened at Samhain, allowing the dead to return to the places where they had lived. Villagers put out offerings of food and drink for their dead, set places at their tables and left their windows, doors and gates unlocked to give them free passage into their homes. Divination of the events of the coming year was another highlight of Samhain and hazelnuts were often used to foretell the future along with apple peels, which were thrown over the shoulder to reveal the initial of future spouses’ names.

    Snap Apple Halloween
    Snap-Apple Night, painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833. It was inspired
    by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832.

    The caption in the first exhibit catalogue:
    There Peggy was dancing with Dan
    While Maureen the lead was melting,
    To prove how their fortunes ran
    With the Cards could Nancy dealt in;
    There was Kate, and her sweet-heart Will,
    In nuts their true-love burning,
    And poor Norah, though smiling still
    She'd missed the snap-apple turning.
    On the Festival of Hallow Eve.

    Today, Halloween festivities include activities like trick-or-treating, attending costume parties, carving jack-o'-lanterns out of pumpkins, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories and watching horror films. Some of these traditions date back to Celtic times: apple bobbing was a Samhain custom associated with the legend of Emhain Abhlach (‘Paradise of Apples’), also called Avalon, where anyone who found and ate of the fruit of a magical apple tree after traveling across the sea would enjoy a blissful afterlife. Carving guardian jack-o’-lanterns out of turnips and placing them at the door or gate was also a Samhain practice, warding off the malevolent or unfriendly spirits that accompanied the dead on their return to the living world – in turn a throwback to the more grizzly early Celtic tradition of ritually beheading human sacrifices and leaving them at the door as warnings. Young people would put on disguises or swap clothing (“guising”) and pretend to be the returning dead to trick their elders. The formalities and social niceties of society were weakened at Samhain along with the barriers separating the living and the dead, allowing for boisterous behaviour and the playing of tricks and mischievous pranks.

    turnip halloween lantern
    the stuff of nightmares. A traditional Irish turnip jack-o'-lantern from the early 20th century. Museum of Country Life, Ireland. Photo credit: Rannpháirtí anaithnid

    With Christianisation, Samhain was integrated into the Catholic calendar of festivals from at least the 8th century to become Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, when the dead who had been canonised that year were honoured.  November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were offered to the souls of newly departed and those waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven.

    While the celebration of Halloween has waned in England and Ireland with the passing centuries, in America it has been reborn - in fact, if it weren’t for the Americans taking up the baton with such gusto, the secular festival might have died out altogether. Halloween arrived in America with the first of the Irish and Scottish Catholic colonists. It quickly grew in popularity, probably because it coincided so neatly with the end of the summer harvest. The jack-o’-lantern was changed from a turnip to a pumpkin, because of its plentifulness in American harvests, and divination was conducted with walnut shells rather than hazelnuts. Trick-or-treating and guising also remained popular customs. After the 1930’s, the commercialisation of American Halloween began in earnest, with the first mass-produced costumes appearing in stores around this time, along with specialised candies and party decorations. The American celebration of Halloween has had a huge impact on how the event is observed in other countries, and its influence has largely eclipsed the more traditional and beautiful pagan elements. Very popular in many parts of East Asia, in Australia and New Zealand the coincidence of Halloween with the season of spring has robbed the festival of its most important traditional meaning and is barely observed.  However, there is still something in the celebration of Halloween for all of us: a time to give thanks for the year past, a time to remember departed loved ones, a celebration of the bond among all people and a sense of community and belonging.

    The less scary modern version of the jack-o'-lantern seen today in America. Or is it?
    A candle is lit in the mouth of the lantern to guide the dead back to their homes on
    Hallows Eve. Photo courtesy of Laszloen.


    A sanitised image of Halloween complete with flying witch and haunted house.


    Traditional Celtic Chant for Samhain

    A year of beauty. A year of plenty. A year of planting. A year of harvest.
    A year of forests. A year of healing. A year of vision. A year of passion.
    A year of rebirth. A year of rebirth. This year may we renew the earth.
    Let it begin with each step we take. Let it begin with each change we make.
    Let it begin with each chain we break. And let it begin every time we awake.


    References and Further Reading

    Kelley, Ruth Edna.Hallowe'en in America.

    Knight, Kevin. Halloween and All Saints Day.
    Feast of Samhain/Celtic New Year/Celebration of All Celtic Saints November 1. All Saints Parish

    HerodotusOctober 31, 2010. The Origins of Halloween Part 1: Samhain and the Celtic Time of Spirits

    Halloween. Wikipedia, retrieved 20th October 2011

    . Wikipedia, retrieved 20th October 2011


    Traditional Halloween greeting card, Scotland


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