through the ages
Halloween or Hallowe’en is celebrated all across the world on the night of 31st October. Our modern day celebrations generally involve groups of children in scary costumes wandering from house to house, demanding “trick-or-treat”. Fearing the worst, intimidated householders normally hand over vast amounts of chocolates, sweets to avoid whatever awful tricks may be about to be unleashed on them.
The origins of these celebrations however date back thousands of years and to truly appreciate and fall in love with this time of year, we must look back through the layers of time.
Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Until 2,000 years ago, the Celts lived across the lands we now know as Britain, Ireland and northern France. They were, for the most part, farming and agricultural people and the Pre-Christian Celtic year was determined by the growing seasons and Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark cold winter. The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. What was fruitful and what had passed.
It was traditional at this time to hollow out turnips for decorative purposes however once the tradition passed over into the United States in the mid 1800s, with the vast Irish immigration, turnips, which were not readily available in the colonies, were replaced by pumpkins, of which there were many.
The Celts believed that on the night of 31st October, ghosts of the dead would revisit the world of the living and large bonfires were lit in each village in order to ward off any evil spirits that may also be at large. Of course our modern day Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell would probably lead many of us to think the sight of a raging fire may actually attract a demon or evil spirit as a reminder of from whence they came? But I digress…
Celtic priests, known as Druids, would have led the Samhain celebrations. It would also have been the Druids who ensured that the hearth fire of each house was re-lit from the glowing embers of the sacred bonfire, in order to help protect the people and keep them warm through the forthcoming long, bleak winter months.
In 43AD the Romans invaded and took over much of the Celtic land. The 400 years that would follow would see many of the Celtic traditions adopted in at least some small way, by the Roman people. However, with the arrival of the Saxons in the 5th century, the remaining Celts were driven north and far west and for a time the festival was little practiced.
Time past, and in the decades that followed, a new and powerful religion began sweeping through the land. Christianity and along with it, Christian festivals and celebrations, one of which was “All Hallows Day” or “All Saints Day”. This was a day for remembering Saints, those who had died for their beliefs. For centuries this was celebrated on May 13th however, it was moved to November 1st by Pope Gregory, it is thought sometime in the 8th century. In moving the date, this then meant that the evening before All Hallows Day, October 31st became known as “All Hallows Eve”. It later became “Hallows Eve” then Hallowe’en and then finally Halloween.
Superstitions and spooky tales about witches and black cats were added to Halloween myths mostly during the medieval period what people thought cats, especially black cats, were evil and even killed the animals in their thousands. It is believed that the shortage of cats lead to an influx of rats that eventually spread the 14th-century Black Plague. Also around this time, the church exacerbated the suspicion of witches, for which many people were hunted and killed. This must have only served to fuel the (in some cases all too real!) fire.
Today, Halloween is the 2nd biggest commercial holiday in the western world, being pipped to the post only by Christmas. A day of tricks, treats, sweets, pumpkin-carving, tacky ghostly decorations and costume-wearing, but the holiday has evolved and morphed into something pretty unrecognizable to any time travelling Celts.