The doorbell rings for the third time this evening. Its chimes sound in the back of my skull. My aching corpse is beckoned to the porch. The front door rises like a tombstone to greet me, and I spot the dead outside, glaring eagerly through the peephole. The barrier between us swings open as their empty sockets, void of thought and feeling, meet my eyes, full of trepidation and worry. A rag-tag of ghosts, ghouls and spirits shift their glance to the carved-out pumpkin at their feet. I scoop its innards into their sacks and they turn, grunting thanks as they acquire fresh targets. It’s the same every year. Children dress like the dead, gathering treats as they move from street-to-street.
I am not alone in wondering: why do we celebrate the western world’s most peculiar holiday? From where did Halloween originate, and how far removed are we from its traditional form?
Samhain: Ancient Origins
Halloween’s ancient origins can be traced as far back as the Celtic occupation of Europe. It was one of their four major holidays, each of which marked the beginning of a new season. Spring, the season that we associate with the beginning of the year, was actually the second holiday in their calendar: Imbolc. Imbolc usually took place around the 1st of February. It was a celebration of the year’s brightest hours, with hearthfires and bonfires representing the return of the Sun’s longer, most warming days.
Beltane, the Celt’s third major holiday of the year, followed Imbolc on – usually – the 1st of May. It marked the beginning of summer and was consequently associated with fire. Most notably, every household fire was doused and relit with the Beltane bonfire. This was to promote growth, because fire traditionally represents power. The Beltane bonfire reenergised the village. Our May Day bank holiday, a Roman festival to mark the beginning of the summer season, is the closest modern-day equivalent to Beltane.
Beltane preceded Lughnasadh, which we would now refer to as the Harvest Festival. The difference here is that Lughnasadh took place much earlier than our celebrations. While the Harvest Festival this year took place at the end of September, the Celts celebrated Lughnasadh at the start of August. This Celtic festival is also far more explicitly religious, celebrating the Pagan God Lugh. In a play-dance re-enactment by villagers, Lugh seizes mankind’s harvest and defeats every entity that might impede its growth. When villagers weren’t performing they were sacrificing a bull to Lugh and offering him their first fruits.
Lughnasadh marked the end of the Celts’ year. The next major holiday – the first of their calendar year – was the Samhain festival, which took place over the 31st October to the 1st November. Samhain brought with it the end of summer, shorter days and colder months. Human death was consequently more common at this time of the year. Because of this, the Celts felt that the boundary between the living world and the afterlife could more easily be crossed during Samhain, and the souls of the dead chose to visit their old homes in pursuit of hospitality. Feasts were held to accommodate those lost souls; plates were made up for them as if they sat next to their still-living friends and relatives. While the Beltane bonfire symbolised growth, bonfires during Samhain protected and cleansed, warding off spirits.
Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh occurred approximately halfway between the Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter solstices and equinoxes. Unlike our holidays, the four festivals had no set date. As time wore on, this was destined to change.
It would appear, then, that our modern Halloween is not as far removed from its ancient origins as I initially hypothesised. In fact, one of the most notable similarities is the art of guising. During Samhain, villagers donned costumes and walked door-to-door, reciting verses in exchange for food. It was thought that this would intimidate the visiting spirits.
Today, guising in its traditional form remains most common in Scotland and Ireland; costumed children sing, dance, and tell jokes in exchange for treats at houses they visit. Guising in the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe has, however, been Americanised; children in those countries exclaim “trick-or-treat!” in return for treats. When no treat is delivered, visitors may perform tricks on the guilty house, such as egging windows or toilet papering roofs.
It’s interesting that only guising and door-knocking survived the demise of Samhain. The more explicitly religious traditions, such as those associated with Lughnasadh, have died out. Investigating why the worship of these Pagan gods no longer takes place answers my final question: from where did its name originate?
All Hallow’s Eve
The answer is rooted in the year 601 A.D and surround the actions of Pope Gregory the First. The Pope desired major transformations in Europe, which included the centralisation of all religious activity. A devout Catholic, Pope Gregory the First was determined to orchestrate the demise of all other faiths. But rather than disregard the natives’ beliefs outright, Gregory sought to merge the holidays of other religions under the Catholic banner. He assigned arbitrary dates to Catholic holidays that would occur around the same time as other faiths’ holidays. That’s why Christmas takes place on December 25th: it overlapped with numerous winter celebrations.
Similarly, rather than quashing the four festivals, they were converted – Samhain was altered to honour Catholic saints. November 1st became All Saints Day, or All Hallows, meaning sanctified or holy. Feasts marked the celebrations to draw focus from Celtic deities. However, Samhain could not be diminished entirely. The festival remained popular, resulting in a ninth-Century Catholic resurgence to more accurately capture the spirit of Samhain. All Souls Day was assigned to November 2nd to encourage the living to pray for the dead. Alas, their attempts faltered: the old religion’s traditions persisted.
It was alleged by this old religion that the most intense supernatural activity of the year would take place the night before All Hallows’. They referred to this as All Hallows Eve. The dead were thought to the wander the streets, and villagers continued laying sustenance outside their houses to feed them. The circle of ‘The Dead’ started to become less exclusive as fairies, demons, ghosts and ghouls quickly became associated with the supernatural evening. Over time the celebrations’ name was shortened: from All Hallows Eve to Hallow Evening – and later contracted to Hallowe’en, which we most commonly write in its simplest form: Halloween.
A Persistent Holiday
We have our answers. Halloween began its life as Samhain, a Celtic festival in which Pagan gods were celebrated and the boundary between the living and dead was lifted. Wandering souls visited old homes for food when they weren’t being intimidated by guised villagers. The Pope Christianised natives’ beliefs, converting the ever-popular Samhain into All Saints Day, or All Hallows’, to focus on Catholic saints, rather than Pagan gods and the supernatural. Nevertheless, Samhain remained relevant in the form of All Hallows Eve – the most supernatural night of the year. As modernity struck, children upheld the most entertaining of the Halloween traditions: trick-or-treating friends and neighbours in undead disguises.
As the secularisation of society continues, it appears that religious traditions fall away in favour of areligious entertainment. Will Halloween survive into the next generation? Or will it join its predecessors – Hallowe’en, All Hallows’ Eve and Samhain – and fall by the wayside?
For now, we can only speculate. Until then:
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