The history of Halloween is a long and complicated one, and I will attempt to put it together for us here so that we may come upon this Halloween or All Souls Day with a renewed perspective and respect for this once solemn Pagan and Christian holiday that originally went back to the Druids and the ancient Romans. Note that the Druidic tradition was an oral tradition and the Druids did not write down their history and so it was left to the Romans to do so; what the Romans gave us is not entirely to be trusted for this reason, for surely they had some agenda of their own and wanted to promote their own gods and belief systems.
Some believe that Samhain, the name for Halloween in some Celtic parts of the world, was the name of Druid god of the dead, who was called "Saman." During Samhain, souls that were both good and wicked would be conjured and come forth. The wicked souls who had died within the past year would be reborn as animals, or so it was believed. During the celebration, all cautions must be taken to ward off any Druid evil spirits, and this is why bonfires were lit, costumes adorned, and other ceremonies held that had both human and animal sacrifice to appease the god of the dead, or so it is told (this god was known as Saman, though there is no evidence that he really existed.).
More likely, Samhain is a literal translation from the Gaelic as noted. The word Samhain comes from the Gaelic and is translated by the Gaelic dictionary as Sam which means, "end" and Fuin that means "of summer."
Samhain, as or "All Saints Day" as it became known in Scotland, marks the end of the harvest year and the beginning of the dark part of the year. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV named the holiday All Saints Day to replace the Pagan "Day of the Dead" and so Christianized the holiday. By 834, Gregory III moved All Saints Day from May 13 to November 1st and made it All Saints Day so that it may become even more of a Christian holiday and a day to remember God and all the "saints" who had come and gone before.
For the Celts, the year was divided into the light part of the year and the dark part of the year. The day was also known as All Saints Day or All Souls Day. At this time of the year, which began usually on November 1st or October 31st and lasted three days, from sunset to sunset (following the Biblical tradition of marking days), and marked a time in the year when the space between the world of the living and the world of the dead was thinner and therefore more permeable.
Communication with the dead was more possible on All Souls Day, in both good and bad ways, and one had to pay homage while also taking the necessary precautions against any spirits who may have less than good intentions. November 1st marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year, and the celebration began on October 31st.
Note too that All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Eve, Hallow from the word in Roman which means "sanctified" was eventually considered a very holy day in the church for people of the Anglican, Episcopalian, Catholic and Lutheran faiths, while still being a Pagan holiday during which time fairies were more prevalent as well, including The Snow Goddess "Feile Moingfinne." Not only did people attend mass, which was a solemn rite, but they would also dress up in frightening costumes to scare off the dead spirits who perhaps did not wish them well.
The practice was to go from house to house in your frightening costume (after a mass or celebration of some kind) and collect Soul Cakes as protection and as part of a celebration. The celebration generally lasted about three days and, again, marked the cycling of another year.
I recently read that contrary to what many have believed, there is no archeological evidence that Samhain was ever the name of a deity, but is as noted above, the meaning of the words put together. More simply, Samhain can be thought of as "Summer's end."
Samhain, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, Hallow E'en, Feast of the Dead, Hallowtide are just a few of the names that have been used for All Saints or All Souls Day. The American Halloween is likely an abbreviation of the Irish Hallow E'een, or Hallowed evening, though note that any real symbolism that the holiday usually held seems to have vanished. Few people know that regardless of which faith you were, Pagan or Christian, it was a solemn day marked by solemn rites and real practices.
The festival of the dead was eventually incorporated into Christian ritual and church services were long, the celebration itself was long and serious, and there were those in every family who believed they could communicate with the dead relatives or all the dead dears, while at the same time knowing that it was vitally important to be protected against any evil spirits that may exist or be around. Dressing up served a real purpose, which was to ward off these spirits, like the collecting of soul cakes, which likewise warded off any evil spirits or hungry ghosts who did not wish us well.
With this thinning of the space between the living and the dead, witches and fairies were believed to have been seen flying in the sky and bonfires were lit to ward off any evil spirits. Superstition was high on All Saints Day and many souls were meant to help you determine your future; to this end, apple peelings were tossed over the shoulder or nuts thrown into the fire, both methods of divining the future, and especially for young people to divine when and to whom they would be married.
Those of Celtic origin, both Irish and Scottish, while not generally celebrated in the rest of Britain, brought the holiday, to America. Over time, the customs changed and the holiday became somewhat devoid of any religious or mystical significance, and became simply a time to dress up and go about collecting candy.
The tradition of being a prankster on Halloween or Mischief Night as it is called in the States became common in the late 19th-early twentieth century when young boys would play minor tricks on absent households who did not have any candy to give them, though note this was not part of the original holiday.
Jack o Lanterns, now carved from pumpkins, used to be carved out of turnips or beetroot, and were used to scare off goblins and ghosts, and to this end, would be carved with a scary face and lit with a small candle. When the first Celtic settlers arrived in America, they did not find many turnips or beets but did find an abundance of pumpkins and this is how pumpkins replaced the beet and the carved turnip, and are used to this day to scare off any unwanted dead souls or demons when left in front of houses. Note too that some sources note that bats, cats and other nocturnal animals became symbols of Halloween because they were nocturnal and believed that they could communicate with the dead as well – that they could communicate and more, cats were associated with witches. To witches today, Halloween represents the end of the witches' year and the beginning of the deadness and chill of winter, though note that to witches too, this time of the year is marked by a thinning of sorts when communication with all souls is more likely than at any other time of the year.
So go about your All Souls Day business, collect your soul cakes, toss your apple peels over your shoulder and your nutshells to the fire, divine your future, but take care out there.
It's a mad, mad world.
Author: Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti