Jack o' lanterns, bobbing for apples, funky or terrifying costumes, trick-or-treating; all of these things conjure up the perfect image Halloween. Second only to Christmas, Halloween is one of the most celebrated festivals around the world. But, do you actually know what Halloween really means, or where the idea came from? With so many movies and TV shows focused on the supernatural side of Halloween, it's a wonder how little people know of the origins of the festival.
With Halloween fast approaching, you may even have a costume at the ready and party plans for the night of October 31st, but it seems appropriate to delve a little deeper into the myths and cultures that made this such a well-celebrated holiday.
The First Ever Halloween
Halloween — as the huge comercial success we all know today — is actually a combination of many elements from different cultures, of which the Irish-Celtic is a huge part. The Celts were a pagan people who lived in ancient Ireland and Scotland, and were keen on the celebration of nature in their festivals. They had four main yearly celebrations: Imbolc, for the spring; Beltrane, for the summer; Lughnasadh, for the autumn; and, Samhain, for the winter. This last one, the Samhain (read 'sah-win'), is where all things Halloween came to life.
The Samhain is a harvest festival, and it represents the end of the reaping for the year. It also stands as a preparation for the darker months ahead, when winter sets in, and it's celebrated from the sunset on October 31 to the evening of November 1. Samhain is the evening before the Christian holiday of All Hallows' Day, which makes it the 'All Hallows' Eve'. It was in Scotland that Samhain changed its name to Halloween, because the word eve was spelled even, and was largely abbreviated 'e'en', in old Scots. Many people still believe Halloween to be a pagan festival, but the truth is that in 6AD Pope Boniface IV de-paganized the holiday by unifying it with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, thus creating the Christian festival of Hallowmas.
What Did Halloween Really Mean?
Samhain is believed to be a time when the veil between the Otherworld and ours is lifted, allowing the spirits free access to roam around their loved ones. That alone would suffice to explain the whole supernatural aura that Halloween has carried through the ages, but in the Celtic Samhain there were even more supernatural rituals. Some have been adapted and are still in used today; others weren't so popular with non-celts and died off.
The first and most important ritual during Samhain was the lighting of the village bonfire. All households within a community would douse their own hearths, so that they could relight it with a torch from the village's bonfire. That not only symbolized a new start (with the old fire dying out and new light coming into the house), but it also created a huge sense of community, as all the houses were linked by the same flame.
The Scottish and Irish Celts believed that the spirits of their loved ones roamed the Earth on Samhain night, but, unfortunately, those weren't the only spirits paying a visit that night. Fairies — called Aos Sí (pronounced 'ees shee') — were also free to cross into our world, and they demanded some sacrifices to be appeased. Irish mythology speaks of human and cattle sacrifice, but the offering of food and drinks — sometimes entire portions of crops — was much more common. The offerings were left outside their homes, so that the fairies could grant their protection to the household or village in the harsh winter to come.
Also called mumming or guising, it's the habit of dressing up as the 'souls of the dead' during Halloween. Over Samhain, people would wear masks, costumes or just simply put ash from a bonfire on their faces to knock door-to-door and offer prayers for the departed - in exchange for soul cakes. In Ireland, some dressed as a hobby horse — called Láir Bhán — with a white sheet over them and a decorative skull at hand. In Scotland, the mummers went as far s threatening mischief on the house that didn't welcome them with food offerings. Trick-or-treating only became a thing in America in the 1920s, but versions of the custom date back to the 16th century.
The Celts believed Samhain to be a great time to predict the future, hence why such a big part of their festival involved divination games. There would be stones cast around a fire and later torched to figure out who would live through the year; apples would be peeled off and their peels would indicate the first letter of the man a woman was to marry; nuts would be roasted and cast as a means to figure out how many children one would have; and even egg whites were dropped in water and letter patterns would be guessed.
For the people doing the guising and the mumming, it was important to carry a light source with them, for some believed it would help keep evil spirits at bay. Then, turnip and mangrel wurzels began to be carved and hollowed out and used as lanterns. They usually had scary or funny faces carved on them, as to help ward off any bad spirits. It was only in America that the turnip gave way to the now traditional pumpkin jack o'lantern, and in 1866 it was used for the first time as a Halloween decoration.
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Halloween Is Not Alone
Although Halloween is a wide-spread phenomenon in its current form, it's not the only festival still lingering from ancient times around the globe. For example, the Hop-tu-naa festival, which takes place in Manx, has a very Halloween-esque feel to it — with guising, lanterns and divination taking a great part. In Wales, the Calan Gaeaf is a festival that takes place on the first of November, with the divination stones being its most characteristic feature. Even the Romans had a similar festival to pay homage to Pomona, the Goddess of harvest, back in their time.
Regardless of its origins, Halloween has become a pretty profitable holiday since it spread to North America with the Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 1800s. With costumes, candy, decorations and greeting cards, the Halloween industry amasses over seven billion dollars a year; a huge difference from the relatively quiet and community-oriented festival of Samhain in its heyday. And what's best, now you don't have to keep bad spirits away as you trick-or-treat around your neighborhood, so you can concentrate on perfecting that Cheeto costume - it worked for Katy Perry!
What will you be dressing as for Halloween? Let me know in the comments!