More than candy – the real history of Halloween

Today is Halloween. I wrote this post a couple of years ago and thought I might repost it today, for anyone interested.

Seeing as I’m a writer of all things macabre and occult (among other things) I thought I’d celebrate Halloween by posting on what Halloween is really all about. Of course, I can only scratch the surface in the limited arena of a blog post, but I’ll give it a go. So many people think that Halloween is basically a dress up party where kids forget all about pedophiles for one evening and walk around in the dark accepting candy from complete strangers. In some ways that’s actually the scariest thing about Halloween nowadays.

Samhain - pic from Hecatescauldron.orgHowever, let’s look at the history. Halloween is an annual holiday celebrated on October 31st. The name comes from a shortening of All Hallows’ Evening, which is in reference to a Christian tradition, though Halloween is actually the Celtic festival of Samhain. Solemnity of All Saints Day, also called All Hallows, is celebrated on 1st November in Western Christianity. It’s a day that commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. Basically it has nothing really to do with Samhain, but you know those Christians and their love of co-opting Pagan holidays. Popes during the eighth century actually moved the Christian holiday of All Saints Day from May 13th to November 1st to rope in those pesky Pagans. Later, around 1000CE, the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. All three days (All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints (Hallows) Day and All Soul’s Day) were called Hallowmas.

Ironically, it’s so often the Christians who complain about the Satanic overtones of Halloween (when they have no idea what they’re talking about) and the very next day they’ll celebrate the dead, and mysterious otherworlds like this Heaven they’re always on about. Come on Christians, is a teeny, tiny bit of consistency really too much to ask? Actually, of course it is. Have you read the bible? But I digress.

So Halloween has origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain. The name is from Gaelic meaning “summer’s end”. While the festival had its roots in Ireland and Scotland, it was celebrated throughout the region by most Celts, often considered to be the Celtic New Year. Samhain is a celebration of the end of the long summer days and the start of the long winter nights. This is the beginning of the dark and scary overtones of the festival. The other side of the scariness comes from the belief among the Celts that the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead were at their weakest on Samhain. That meant that all kinds of spirits (benevolent and malevolent) could slip through from the Otherworld to our world on that night. For this reason, good spirits (particularly family ancestors, dead elders and so on) were honoured and celebrated while all kinds of measures were taken to ward off evil spirits. (Some people think that the habit of wearing costumes on Halloween comes from this desire to ward off the evil spirits, as people would dress as those spirits in order to disguise themselves and avoid harm. This is not something that’s universally accepted, however.)

Also during Samhain, people would stockpile food for the winter, slaughter livestock and cure the meat and so on. The preparation for the long, cold European winter was something to take very seriously. It still is, actually, but central heating makes a mockery of old man Winter nowadays.

Pic from www.hauntedbay.comAlso during Samhain, because the veil between our world and the Otherworld was so thin, it was a prime time for Druids to step up and make their prophecies. A lot of divination was undertaken during Samhain. People would build huge bonfires and burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the various Celtic gods that the Druids invoked. The Druids would then pass on their divinations, mainly giving the people some hope for the future while faced with a long, bleak, cold and hungry winter.

One other tradition that I really like from Samhain was that of sharing fire. The massive bonfire would be lit, Druids would do their thing and everyone would party around it. During this time, all the fires in peoples’ homes would be put out. On returning home people would take a brand from the huge bonfire and relight their hearth with it, so everyone had a bit of the same blessed Samhain fire in their house at the start of the dark half of the year. There’s something delicious about that tradition.

The Christians, however, weren’t the first to take a piece of Samhain. The Romans got in there first. In late October the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead in a tradition called Feralia. They also had a day to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. These were wrapped in with the various Celtic traditions around Samhain, then the Christians came along and added their Saints and Souls days and the whole thing blurred together. Now we get precocious little snots throwing eggs at your house if you don’t give them sweets for dressing like little tits. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s all fun and games for the little kiddies, but let’s at least try to educate them on why they’re doing this stuff. Regardless, I think that Halloween is one of my favourite traditional holidays, when viewed from its historically accurate perspective. Not the Americanisation of it, with it’s costumes and children extorting sugar from their neighbours, but the real ideas of Halloween. I love the concepts, the darkness descending for another winter, the spirits slipping through from the Otherworld, giant bonfires and Druids seeking some knowledge of the future. Come on, isn’t all that so much better than hassling old Mrs Jenkins for a jelly snake with a sheet over your head? Unfortunately, now that I live in Australia, Halloween falls at the beginning of summer rather than the beginning of winter, but that’s life underneath for you.

What are your plans for Halloween? I might slaughter a lamb…

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6 thoughts on “More than candy – the real history of Halloween

  1. I don’t like kids, but what’s wrong with letting them have some fun? It isn’t exactly extortion. Most adults look forward to handing out candy so they can see all the costumes. It’s a national day of cosplay. What’s wrong with that? 😉

  2. Also…

    How can you not mention Día de los Muertos? The original festival dates back to the Aztecs.

    That “Americanisation”, the dressing up and the sweet snacks, most likely came from the Day of the Dead celebrations. Don’t knock the traditions of another culture because they came from another continent or they don’t mesh with your version of the holiday. 😛

  3. Methinks the American doth protest too much. It’s not my version of the holiday, but the true history of it. And while Americans may have blended Day of the Dead traditions with a corruption of Pagan practice, that doesn’t detract from those Pagan roots.

    As for the candy thing – we spend 364 days of the year warning kids about stranger danger and never accepting sweets from strangers. Then we dress them up and send them round to stranger’s houses begging for sweets. Mystifying.

  4. Sigh…lost my reply.

    Wasn’t protesting, just thought you were being a little harsh on the kids having fun.

    I prefer the Pagan roots of the holiday myself. But I believe any discussion of Halloween should include the Day of the Dead traditions. They aren’t that different and Day of the Dead has Aztec roots.

    The candy is a modern addition to the holiday. Kids used to get fruit, money, homemade treats. Because of fear of stranger dangers parents were urged to give prepackaged treats instead and to check the kids’ candy for tampering before it’s eaten. Also, kids aren’t sent to stranger’s houses. Little kids are chaperoned by their parents, and trick-or-treating is limited to your own neighborhood, at homes of people you know. Many don’t even do that anymore. The big thing going for the last few years is going around the malls and shopping centers where there are lots of people and security. Older kids go around in groups. Again, to limited, trusted places.

    Why can’t it be both ways? Let the kids have their fun and anyone who wants to recognize the Pagan roots and do that. I know it’s what my pagan friends do.

  5. But therein lies the problem – the Day Of The Dead influenced the American interpretation of the Pagan Halloween. Subsequently, Australia and other places have taken on the American version, not through their own acceptance but because the commercial retail sector sees the massive profits to be made from an Americanised Halloween.

    I’ve nothing against American customs – though I would hope parents could teach their kids the Pagan roots of Halloween and the subsequent addition of Aztec aspects in the US. What I am against is the crass commercialisation and Americanisation of the Australian and European Halloween.

    And sure, let the kids have their fun if you like. But educate them as to history, mythology, culture and all that other stuff too.

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