Halloween, what is it really?

All right then. Seeing as I’m a writer of all things macabre and occult (among other things) I thought I’d celebrate Halloween. Along with the fantastic joint promotion with Gryphonwood Press, where we’re giving away loads of ebooks for free, I thought I’d post 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. Even 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 that 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 its 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 “Halloween, what is it really?

  1. Me, I’m a big, big fan of the candy-and-costumes thing. For me, it’s what my people do. It has its own identity, regardless of its origins. If Americans have co-opted it, we’re no different from any other group that’s co-opted it to meet *their* needs. And, I must say, it is entirely possible (even probable) that the autumn festival predates even the whole Samhain thing. So everyone co-opts, based on cultural and personal need. And I really, really need Halloween as celebrated by my own people — ESPECIALLY when I am diametrically far from home.

    Don’t stress about the Americanization. Come by my place. Have some chocolate. You’ll feel better.

  2. It’s fair enough for Americans to enjoy the cultural event that Halloween is for them. But it would be good if they also knew more about the roots of it – I bet many don’t, which is a shame. Just as many don’t here in Australia or elsewhere.

    As for the Americanisation (note the ‘s’ in that word 🙂 ) it’s not the Americanisation of Halloween so much as the Americanisation of Australia that bothers me!

    In truth, if we were going to honour the roots of the festival here in the southern hemisphere, we should have it in April, not in the Spring.

    We all co-opt things. I just like to remember where things came from. Why we do the things we do is fascinating, and very important.

  3. For me, this time of year is a time of plenty. I have already been foraging for (edible) mushrooms over The New Forest (full of ancient mystique) for a few weeks now. I have collected blackberries and wild crab apples are dropping from the trees, ready to be collected and preserved. Damp, misty mornings and wet leaves on the road are a hazard to motorbikes, but as the landscape mellows and settles down to sleep for the winter, something deep and visceral calls me out into the woodland looking for nuts, berries and the illusive chanterelle, cep and deceiver …. all exceptionally tasty when eaten with seasonal game in a heartwarming stew. I also have a log-burning stove. As the evenings draw in, a crackling log fire sends malevolent spirits on their way and makes my home feel safe, warm and comforting, with a pervading (but pleasant) smell of woodsmoke.

    Thanks for sharing a little about the origins of All Hallow’s Eve, as it is, for me, a strangely magical time of year.

  4. Alan – interesting stuff. Now I’m back off to shout at the kids telling crap jokes on the doorstep. LEAVE ME ALONE YOU BRATS. 😉

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