Ask most people about halloween and they'll say "Oh that's American isn't it?" they couldn't be further from the historical truth. Many of us european folk have forgotten or simply neglected local inherent spiritual roots. In truth Halloween/All Souls Night originates from the Celtic Pagan Festival `Samhain´. The word Samhain is also used in Celtic Gaelic for `the winter quarter´.
The first Halloween fires can be traced back to the Great Festival Fires built on two hills 'Tlachtga' and 'Tara' in Ireland around 4500 years ago, long before the european Celtic tribes were established. It became more popular throughout the Celtic lands approximately 2000 years later, 2500 years ago. It was known as Samhain (pronounced sow-en) by the Gaelic speaking Celtic folk. Samhain is also the name given for the winter months of the year in the ancient and precise Celtic Calendar and marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Samhain was and still is the deep sacredly mysterious time when the doors to the otherworld are wide open to us here not he earthy material level, allowing spirits to pass through both ways.
Samhain has three distinctive foundations. It was and still is for a few of us an important fire festival originally celebrated on and over the evening and night of 31 October. The flames of the old fires were extinguished and ceremonially re-lit by Druids, Mystics & Elders at Halloween time. The main hilltop fire was also the source of flame to all the smaller hearths in the local village.
Samhain had the power somewhat like the modern New Year's Day, in that it had the notion of casting out the old and moving forward into the new. To our Ancestors it was a time when all the crops would have been gathered and stored, the preserving and pickling complete, livestock brought to safety and preparations finalised in awareness of the long winter ahead.
To ward off any disturbing, malevolent or annoying spirits and to invite helpful spirits and reachable family ancestors on the other side, the Celtic families lit great fires to attract the helpful spirits, the family members wore strange disguises to confuse spirits bringing malevolence and stop them identifying individuals who they had disliked in their own lifetime. Animal bones were cast into the fire and food was prepared for the living and the dead.
The disguises our Celtic relations wore were usually the heads of animals and rough animal furs. they would sit round the fire making rituals & singing ancient songs and story/fortune telling.
The prepared food & wine was left at earthy power places and areas where hawthorn (whitethorn) and was growing in the hope the meal would please and calm the annoying spirits. Offerings were also left in other places as gifts of hospitality to their own ancestors.
Halloween may stir up thoughts of hollowed out pumpkins illuminated from the inside and groups of children knocking on the door asking for sweets but the actual pumpkin/trick or treat custom is a very recent tradition grafted on to deep roots.
In Great Britain for hundreds of years the custom was always the carving out of turnips to frighten away any unwanted spirit, in the same style as the recent pumpkins adding a gruesome face and adding a candle to complete the vegetable face lantern. The scary turnips were left on gateposts, doorways and on window ledges. This turnip tradition was still very active in Parts of Europe up until about 20 years ago.
In the 1900,s immigrants to the US from Ireland and Scotland used pumpkins instead of turnips (probably because they were cheaper and more widespread) for their halloween lanterns therefore over recent years the Halloween pumpkin tradition spread across the Atlantic and back into Europe.
The term `Jack o Lanterns´is strongly associated with Halloween, it originates from an 18th century Irish folk story. "Jack tricked the devil and had him climb an apple tree to take an apple, when the devil climbed up the tree, Jack cut the sign of a cross into the trunk to prevent the devil from coming down, the devil was trapped in the tree branches. When Jack died he couldn't gain access into heaven because of his life of selfishness and the devil didn't want anything to do with him because of his trapping trickery some years earlier. The devil threw a burning coal at Jack, so Jack put it in a hollow turnip to make a lantern and Jack was forced to walk the earth endlessly as a ghost.
Trick or Treat!... Our Ancestors would often go from door to door at Halloween time collecting offerings to donate to the pagan dieties. The younger folk would collect old wood and stack it all on top of the ceremonial hill for the great Halloween fire. Over the years these social practices transformed into todays `trick or treating´ where the children proceed from door to door asking for sweets.
In 840 AD Christianity incorporated the honouring of the dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints day on November 1st in an attempt to subdue, regulate and control the wonderful Pagan Fire Festival: Samhain.
The title `Halloween´is hundreds of years old and derives from the title `All Hallows Eve´. Hallow meaning Sacred and eve meaning even, so over the years `All Hallows Eve´ was shortened to `Halloween´. There are quite a few other names for Halloween including`All souls night´ `Snap Apple Night´`Feast of the Dead´and `Witches Night´.
Although Halloween has been downgraded from a first class night of deep/commemorative spirit communion to (in most cases) a shallow ungrounded fright night muddle, it still remains a night in the year where social normality is turned upside down and a temporary freedom of expression reigns supreme.
Halloween was and still is to many of us magical time where supernatural forces are in abundance, Pagan Dieties are closer and the spirits of the dead although cannot be seen by mortal eyes, return to visit there earthly abodes.
Happy Samhain time to all.