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Origins of Halloween


Between the Worlds:
The Origins of Halloween and Its Customs


by Karen Lunagirl

Copyright 1983, 2005.  Please do not copy in whole or in part without permission. Thanks!



A special Halloween feature article from Lunagirl Images your source for vintage art and digital ephemera printables!

Halloween is a holiday familiar to all Americans.  Children disguised as ghosts and goblins (and superheroes and princesses) roam the streets trick-or-treating; teenagers play pranks and try to frighten themselves with trips to the graveyard and scary movies; young girls may attempt by various means of divination to learn of their future husbands; and generally everyone has a good time drinking cider (or something harder), bobbing for apples, wearing costumes, and waiting for "the witching hour."  But....

it seems few people know of 
the origins of Halloween 
and its wonderful mood of magic and fright


 

 


Among the ancient Celtic peoples of Europe, the end of October was marked by the festival of Samhain.  Samhain (sometimes translated hesitantly as "summer's end") was one of four major yearly festivals of the Celtic calendar.  As the life of these people was embedded in and dependant upon the cycles of nature, their calendar was based on the movement of the seasons.  The festivals can be seen as recognizing and celebrating important transition point in the seasonal year.  



 

Ancient Holiday Festivals
The Celts measured time primarily by the moon, and these four festivals may be compared to the lunar stages.  Candlemas recognized the waxing (growth) of the year, Beltane the fullness, and Lammas the waning, while Samhain celebrated the new or dark moon, both the end and the beginning of the cycle.

In the Celtic calendar (as many other ancient calendars) a "day" began at sunset the day before, and holiday observations began on the "eve."  As a survival of this world view, we celebrate All Hallow's Eve and Christmas Eve!  Jewish holidays similarly begin at sunset.  Imbolc, later Christianized as Candlemas, celebrated the beginnings of the return of the light and warmth of the sun.  It was thought to be the best time for predicting the weather of the coming spring -- a belief that survives today in Groundhog Day.  Beltane or May Day signified the beginning of summer, a time of warmth, abundance, and fertility.  Lughnasa, later known as Lammas, was the harvest festival in these northern lands, a time of gathering in -- of enjoying the fruits of summer and beginning preparations for the long winter ahead.

Samhain (beginning at sundown on October 31) was the Celtic new year festival, and the most powerful transition of the year.  It marked the end of one year and the beginning of another, and the entry of winter.  The waning light and warmth of the sun gives way to darkness and cold.  The harvest was completed and crops were put away for the winter.  As the time of the death of the old year, Samhain was the appropriate time to remember the dead; their spirits were believed to return to earth on this night. 
Samhain symbolized death -- death which is not final but rather a dark incubation necessary before rebirth in the spring.

Although it has come to us altered by time, by Christianity and eventually by modern commercialism, the essential character and wisdom of the ancient festival is reflected in the imagery & celebrations of Halloween.

The Celts experienced the natural and supernatural as existing in very close proximity to each other, and it can be said that on the eve of Samhain -- a potent juncture or break in normal time -- they existed within each other.  Indeed, it was long believed that a child born on this night will have "double sight"; that is, he or she will be able to perceive and communicate with the Otherworld.  It was believed that at each transitional festival the Otherworld was temporarily upset.  As the juncture between the old and new year, Halloween brought a complete upheaval, and all the inhabitants of the other world were free for the night to work weal or woe on any humans they encountered.

This was the night when the usual boundaries between the dead and the living, the dark and the light, the spiritual realm and the natural world, were transcended.  As Christianity moved into the British Isles and Ireland it continued its time-honored policy of incorporating pagan holidays into the Christian calendar, and Samhain, the "festival of the dead," was re-designated All Saint's Day, in memory of the blessed dead.  Although filtered through Christianity, the traditional customs and beliefs survived in the celebration of All Hallow's Eve, or Hallowe'en.  (The word "hallow" derives from the Middle English halve, meaning "saint.")

The celebration of Halloween was not widespread in the United States until the 1840s, when great waves of Irish immigrants arrived... 
  
bringing the ancient Halloween traditions with them.

The beliefs and customs that surround Halloween today, and the images associated with it in our minds, have their roots in the old Irish/Scottish Celtic festival. 

Everyone knows that Halloween is the night when ghosts and skeletons and all sorts of mischievous spirits and terrifying creatures come out to roam freely for a night in the world of humans!  

The ancient Celts, and probably some of our not-so-ancient Victorian ancestors, believed that on Halloween the spirits of the dead roamed the land of the living.  The prehistoric burial mounds, the sidhs in Ireland, opened up and their inhabitants tried to lure the living to join them.  According to some accounts, the spirits came out of the Cave of Cruachan in Connaught, called the gate of hell, accompanied by copper-colored birds who killed farm animals and stole babies and brides.

This was also the night on which the faeries were most powerful. 
In Irish folktales Halloween seems to be by far the most popular time for the abduction and bewitching of humans by these "little people."  

Those who had been taken away to fairyland could be rescued on the next Halloween by reciting a special spell or prayer as the fairies made their procession.  

Sir Walter Scott reported the belief that if a person circles a fairy hill nine times, counterclockwise, alone on Halloween, a door will open by which he can enter the fairy's abode.

The Victorian vision of fairies was sometimes a bit darker than ours tends to be, and they were often associated with Halloween.  In addition to sweet flower fairies, the Victorian Faeries or Fae included mischievous, impish creatures as well.

Trick-or-Treating

The most popular way of celebrating Halloween in the United States seems to be playing the part of the supernatural beings supposed to walk the earth on this night -- by dressing as spooks who go from house to house demanding sacrificial treats, and by playing pranks!  

There are numerous explanations as to how "trick-or-treating" originated.  The Druids (priests of the Celts) wore masks at their Samhain rituals to represent the spirits of the dead.  

Masks and costumes today are sometimes interpreted as a means of avoiding recognition by the spirits rather than a means of imitating them.  In Scotland, some "guisers," as they were called, blackened their faces instead of wearing masks.  This recalls the customs of blackening one's face with the ashes of the All Hallow's fires for protection and good fortune. 

 

Masks are part of sacred and magical rituals the world over.  
Psychologically, masks and disguises can lessen inhibitions and give the wearer a sense of freedom and relaxation from usual social restrictions -- often a healthy and harmless break from our day-to-day lives.
  

Perhaps wearing costumes serves the purpose of letting us defy temporarily the boundaries of our everyday lives and "be someone else," perhaps act out parts of ourselves that we normally keep hidden.

And so normally mild-mannered moms and ebay sellers dress as
exotic gypsy girls and ethereal mermaids and sexy witches -- or scary ones -- and children for a night are princesses and superheroes.

Why then do some of us dress as werewolves and vampires and big scary monsters?  One wonders what Freud would say..........
but it's probably all in fun!

Some say the original purpose of trick-or-treating was to gather food and money for the All Hallow's feast.  It has also been linked with "mumming," a custom practiced on other seasonal holidays as well, especially Yule (later Christmas), another ancient new year's celebration.

"Mumming" was a seasonal tradition in England and other parts of Europe, in which men donned masks and went from house to house demanding or begging for food.  Although often fun and humorous, it was surrounded by a mystical and magical air, and performed a seasonal holidays such as Yuletide.


Yule

Yule, the Winter Solstice and longest night of the year, is the new year festival of another seasonal calendar, based on the solar equinoxes and solstices.  The two calendars were eventually combined, and it is easy to see how some Yule customs could have become associated also with Halloween.

An interesting account from West Virginia reports that trick-or-treating began as "Belsnickling," a Christmas custom brought to the area by Pennsylvania Germans in the 1700s.  On Christmas Eve groups went about in disguise from house to house.  They knocked on the door, and when asked, "Who is it?" the leader replied, "Old Belsnickle."  After being invited in, anyone correctly identified behind their disguise had to do a "trick" -- sing a song, perform a dance, etc.  If no one was identified, the whole bunch was treated with food and drink.  (Of course, they were all treated anyway, no matter what happened!)  This custom is most probably a survival of mumming.  According to this account, Belsnickling was later adapted to Halloween and soon spread all over the country; the meaning of the world "trick," however, came to be a prank rather than some clever act.  (source: Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians, by Patrick W. Gainer, Seneca Books, 1975)

The Wheel of the Year

February 2
March 21 (approx)
May 1
June 21 (approx)
August 1
September 21 (approx)
November 1
December 21 (approx)

Imbolc (Candlemas)
Spring Equinox (Eoster)
Beltane (May Day)
Summer Solstice
Lughnasa (Lammas)
Autumn Equinox
Samhain (All Hallow's) - New Year
Yule (later Dec. 25 Christmas) - New Year

Jack-o-Lanterns & Halloween Pranks

There is an Irish story explaining the origin of jack-o-lanterns: 
It seems a man named Jack was barred from heaven because he was so stingy and forbidden to enter hell because of his practical jokes on the devil.

The devil, angered by Jack's practical jokes, threw a live coal at him.  It landed in a half-eaten turnip in Jack's hand, creating the first jack-o-lantern.  (Early jack-o-lanterns were turnips as well as pumpkins and other gourds.) 

He is condemned to walk the earth with his lantern until Judgment Day!  


Closed out of hell as well as heaven, Jack is suspended between life and death,
and thus his jack-o-lantern is particularly appropriate to Halloween.

As a child in the southern U.S. I was told (teasingly) that the grinning pumpkin face in the window helped frighten evil spirits away from the house.  Although this may keep away the spirits of the dead, it seems to have little effect on the pranksters -- young people who become demons for a night and roam the neighborhoods making mischief.  Halloween provides an irresistible opportunity for the practical joker.  If the farmer's outhouse ends up in the creek, or your trees end up full of toilet paper, it was the evil spirits who did it -- once a perfect alibi for the real culprits.  Again, the limits placed on day-to-day behavior were weakened for a night.  today, most of it is of course harmless, although I do wish people wouldn't smash jack-o-lanterns!

Some once-common Halloween pranks, such as window-tapping, gathering vegetables to bombard house fronts and drop down chimneys, and removing carts and other belongings to faraway fields, were practiced in altered form in the United States when I was growing up (with the variation, of course, that we took things from the garage and left them in other neighbors' yards).  Soaping windows (especially car windows), stealing jack-o-lanterns, and "rolling" yards (adorning the trees and shrubs in toilet paper) were also popular.

Halloween Bonfires

Halloween bonfires are direct descendants of Samhain/All Hallow's fires of the Celts, lit in honor of the weakening sun at summer's end.  

The fires helped ward off the growing power of darkness and cold.  Perhaps they were meant to strengthen the fire of the sun by means of sympathetic magic. 
They were also a means of purification.  Even in recent times the ashes of the Halloween (and New Years) bonfires were scattered throughout the community to protect against evil powers and fertilize the fields.

Every hearth fire was first lit for the new year from the Samhain or new years bonfire. 
In ancient times it was considered an act of great impiety to kindle winter fires from any other source.

 

In parts of England, a large bunch of wood was gathered, dressed as a person, then burned under the name Le Vieux Bout de l'An, "the old end of the year."  Here again we see a similarity to Yule customs -- the traditional Yule log that burnt all night was originally also dressed as a person.  

In Scotland we find the custom called "Burning the Witch," which involved burning an effigy and continued well into modern times.  Guy Fawkes Day, named for a rebel who tried to blow up Parliament around the turn of the seventeenth century and celebrated in England on November 5, also involves the burning of a human effigy and is sometimes combined with the Halloween celebration.

These mock sacrifices represented the death of the old year.  Probably such sacrifices were intended to appease the spirits of the dead, for it was believed that the spirits might continue to disrupt human affairs throughout the year if not properly honored.  People often left food out on the table for the returning dead on Halloween.  (Another ancestor of our trick-or-treating custom.)

Halloween Superstitions & Divination Customs

As it is the beginning of the new year and a time when the everyday and the supernatural were believed to be in such close contact....Halloween was considered the perfect time for divining the future.

The divination traditions associated with Halloween are numerous and fascinating!

 

 

 

There were many superstitions involving mirrors. 
Some believed that if a young woman looked into a mirror at midnight on Halloween, she would see the face of her future husband or true love.  A smooth pond surface or wishing well reflection would also work!  There were similar beliefs about looking into a pond or well at dawn on May Day (Beltane).  Others might gaze into the mirror at midnight on Halloween and see their future revealed.

Mirrors and reflections were long considered magical and mysterious, because the reflection was associated with the soul of the person reflected; a mirror could capture or reveal one's soul.  Some of us are still a little superstitious about breaking a mirror.

APPLES

Halloween divination usually involved apples, nuts, grain, or other agricultural products, combining the harvest aspect of the holiday with its magical nature.  

Apples were particularly popular, and the apple rites seem to be the customs most often found in the United States.  

(To the Celts, a perfect apple was the charm by which one might be admitted to the Otherworld and gain "second sight.")

 



Many customs involve apple peels.  For example, people would peel apples trying to keep the peel all in one piece; whoever had the longest peel would have the longest life.  

Young girls would peel an apple and then throw the long peel over their left shoulder, believing that it would form the initial of their future husband's name!  

When bobbing for apples, some believed that the first person to get an apple would be the first to marry.

 

  
PUMPKINS

Pumpkins are of course another agricultural product always associated with Halloween. 

Like apples, they are plentiful in October.  Also like apples, they were sometimes used for divination. 

Some ladies reportedly put pumpkins on their heads at midnight on Halloween, to see their future husbands!

 

Black Cats & Witches

Cats have long been the objects of much superstition, and they are frequently associated with Halloween.  Cats were sacred to the Druids; it was believed that they had once been human beings.  Perhaps the cat had magical power because it was supposedly the most common "familiar" of witches (probably just the favorite companion of old ladies living alone). 

Feline behavior towards a person on Halloween was often taken as an omen.  For example, if a cat jumps into your lap on this night, good luck is foretold.  Probably more prevalent is the belief that cats, particularly black cats, can be ill omens.  Everyone in the U.S. has heard that a black cat crossing your path means bad luck ahead.  

The bad reputation of the cat may have been a medieval Christian reaction against the honor given them by the
pre-Christian Druids.  Medieval Christians burned cats along with accused "witches" (leading to an overpopulation of rats, which bred fleas, which carried the bubonic plague...now that's bad luck).

The figure of the witch is now an integral part of Halloween in our minds, but she may be a relatively late arrival.  How she got there is a story extremely long and complex.  I suspect that originally witches were just another of the various supernatural beings thought to walk or fly about the earth on Halloween.  Witches tended to get confused with sorcerers, who, since they may supposedly used evil spirits to carry out their work, would be particularly active on this night.  

The Real Witches - Wise Old Ladies in the Woods?

Some today regard the so-called witches of old Europe as simply survivors from the pre-Christian, nature-focused religions of the ancients.  In other words, pagans who revered nature (not Satan). 

The idea of older, traditional folks living off in the woods, continuing their seasonal celebrations, magical beliefs, and herbal medicine, is not far from our image of the witch.  

As Christianity gained ascendancy in Europe, witches were reinterpreted through Church dogma and came to be viewed (incorrectly) as Satan-worshippers.  Many of the popular (and often incorrect) notions about witchcraft derived from "confessions" extracted by torture from the accused "witches" of earlier centuries.

Most who were executed as witches during the "burning times" were most likely "strange" old ladies living alone in the woods, the mentally ill, midwives and herbalists, people who followed the "old ways" of the Celts, women whose remarkable ugliness or beauty brought attention.....those whose "difference" aroused suspicion in a fearful, ignorant, and tumultuous age.

Bats and owls are associated with Halloween probably because they are nocturnal -- active only at night.  Perhaps they join the spirits to fly about the night sky.  Owls were for thousands of years associated with knowledge and wisdom, especially feminine wisdom, and so are a fitting companion for the witch, the Old Wise Woman.  (Owls were a symbol for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, as well.)

The witch's cauldron may represent the "cauldron of Cerridwen" of Celtic myth, source of wisdom and rebirth -- and the direct symbolic predecessor of the Holy Grail.  In myth often one was cut up and boiled in the cauldron, to emerge again reborn in wholeness, health & wisdom

The cauldron and later the Grail were believed to be guarded by a hideous woman-beast.  In many Celtic stories it is through this terrifying creature that the magic vessel is finally encountered, and only the person who can accept and kiss her can gain access to the wisdom and renewal she guards.  By embracing the pain and struggle of life we gain wisdom and greater strength.

This image of the old witch hovering over her cauldron embodies beautifully the original symbolic meaning of Halloween. 

This is the night when we confront perhaps the ultimate riddle: As winter approaches, the world comes face to face with the power of death and darkness, which holds within it the promise of rebirth.  On the wheel of the year, the cold stillness of the coming winter will take us around again to the warmth and renewal of spring. 

Behind our holiday called Halloween lies the eerie, magical mood of the ancient festival of Samhain and All Hallow's Eve. 

Perhaps we would do well to remember some of its original meaning -- not to conjure up real fears again, but rather to rekindle a feeling of wonder toward the great cycle of death and rebirth in nature and in our lives.

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