My great-grandmother was Irish. Consequently, I learned early in my childhood the relationship between the celebration of Halloween and my Irish heritage. The holiday began among the Druids over two thousand years ago. That makes it the second oldest holiday still celebrated today; with the first, of course, being that of Christmas.
Depending upon an individual’s heritage, they may view Halloween in several different ways. Some Christian sects, for example, denounce the holiday for its supposed connection to all things satanic. Several new age sects view it as the fall equinox; and celebrate it as a time of great power and fertility.
Most of us, however, don’t look at Halloween for any of its claimed connection to the supernatural or occult. It is, instead viewed as a time for children to dress-up and have fun. With so many different views about Halloween, it obviously begs the question “what is Halloween really about?”
The truth is that, as originated, Halloween was indeed a pagan festival of sorts. Its original intent was to honor the dead. While some cultures viewed it as a way of remembering those that had passed on, other cultures gave it a much darker meaning.
As originally celebrated the holiday was called the Feast of Samhain, which basically meant “summer’s end” and it was celebrated on October 31. For many Celtic people it held two-fold importance. It was the time when fall crops were harvested and a time specifically set aside to honor the dead. Celebrations included festivals with great bonfires, lots of food, drink, and revelry, and the sharing of stories about those who had passed away during the year.
However, certain radical sects, like the Druids, used the celebration for less honorable intents. They believed that on that on that sacred night the dead were close enough to the veil between the living and those beyond, that they could cross over and wreak whatever havoc they saw fit. Chaos reigned, ranging from simple mischief to more dangerous pranks.
To protect themselves from the evil spirits on that night, they often wore masks, costumes, and disguises to masquerade themselves as demons or imps so that they might remain undetected and safe. Other groups, however, donned animal masks and costumes of animal skins that were considered sacred to the lord of the dead. Their purposes were more devious in nature. They meant to honor Satan so that he wouldn’t allow the destruction of their crops and so that he would help them protect their wealth.
Unfortunately, some sects didn’t believe that dressing in costumes was a sufficient tribute to Satan. These radicals went so far as to sacrifice animals and humans in hopes of having even more specific prayers answered.
Some also believed that, during Samhain, the dead who felt they weren’t remembered properly by their family and friends would arise to play tricks on those who had forgotten them. By way of apology, for forgetting to properly honor them, many Celts would offer gifts of food and homemade items like bread, butter, cheese, etc. to the spirits.
The Christian religion had a similar tradition that took place on November 2. It was called All Soul Days and was a time when Christians would travel from village to village begging for “soul cakes” which were basically a form of bread with a fruity currant topping. For each cake they received, the recipient would say a prayer for the one making the donation.
These events eventually merged together to become our recognized Halloween tradition of “trick or treat.” The sweet bread and cakes were eventually replaced with the more modern candy that is most often used today.
The renaming of the original holiday is credited to the Catholic Church and Pope Boniface IV. It comes from their celebration of All Hallows Eve; a day meant to honor saints and martyrs. Most believe that this replacement holiday was the church’s attempt to do away with any kind of pagan tradition.
Ancient Rome worshipped the goddess of the harvest whose sacred fruit was the apple. For this reason, the fruit was liberally sprinkled into Roman traditions and festivals. A game similar in nature to the apple bobbing we do today, was actually practiced by the Roman people thousands of years ago.
The practice of carving jack-o-lanterns isn’t new either. Irish children once carved turnips for early Halloween festivals. The candle lit vegetables began in response to an old folk tale that indicated such items could ward away an evil spirit named Jack.
According to legend, Jack was so naughty that neither God nor Satan wanted anything to do with him so he wandered the earth creating mischief at will. However, he didn’t care for the light and avoided homes where his likeness was lit with a candle.
When the Irish migrated to America they, of course, brought their traditions of Halloween with them. But since turnips weren’t easily available for jack-o-lanterns, they switched the tradition from turnips to pumpkins.
Bats, owls and black cats eventually became traditional Halloween symbols because so many people believed that those nocturnal animals could communicate with the spirits of the dead. And, of course, there was a supposedly a strong connection between black cats and witches. Medieval tradition even indicated that witches would hide by turning themselves into black cats. Other religions and cultures considered cats to be the “familiars” of witches.
Although witches are now popular Halloween symbols, that wasn’t always the case. The term witch actually comes from a Saxon word – – wica, which literally translated actually means “wise one.” The Wican religion, in its truest sense, has nothing at all to do with the occult or Satan. It is closer to a celebration of nature.
The connection between Halloween and witches eventually came about because some of those who practiced wican magic celebrated Halloween as both the end and beginning of their year. The wican religion was eventually bastardized into something evil and the birth of the ugly old hag came into being and got attached to Halloween.
The whole idea of witches and broomsticks is actually very funny. In ancient times, wicans on their way to celebrate their sabbath would often take brooms or poles with them as walking sticks. They used them to help in climbing hills, clearing forest paths, and even fording small streams. Thus, the concept of a witch and her broomstick became inseparable. The human imagination took over from there.
Halloween continues to be a subject of hot debate among many Christian religions and it is doubtful that there will ever be a common ground that everyone will accept. It might be that, at some point in the future, the holiday will just fade away. Until then, however, I say let kids have their fun. Childhood is fleeting and they deserve every moment they can carve out.
Some of the traditions that we now associate with Halloween also have roots that flow deep into ancient cultures. One such example is bobbing for apples. This game, which is now a regular part of Halloween, actually originated with the Romans.