October is coming to an end, we are so near the day we have all been waiting for, Halloween! or All Saints Day, a very traditional Christian celebration for thousands of generations. But is it really a celebration from the Christian holidays calendar? Or an adaptation from a very ancient past before the christianization of Europe?
In truth, Halloween comes from the harvest festivals held by this time of the year by many European cultures, since immemorial times. We know about the Celtic Harvest festival given the recent Gaelic name of Samhain, a day that marks the end of Summer, connected to the harvest, also to the dead and the ancestors and the Celtic new year.
The medieval Christian churchmen and their Christian leaders often placed their holidays near popular pagan celebrations to wean the people that were recently converted, away from their pagan festivals and beliefs. Like so, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day from May the 13th to November the 1st. People wouldn’t complain that much now, since they would still celebrate their old pagan holyday but in a different manner and turned to the new faith.
Even with such a new faith introduced, this day never lost it’s former essence, and much of the popular imagination and superstition from the earlier period of this celebration is still associated to the fall pagan festival and came to our modern days because some people ( including chuchmen ) preserved some of the cults of the ancient era. Much of the superstitions were around the dead, but by this time, the harvest celebrations took place, bonfires, the coming of autumn and the natural world changing, metaphorically speaking, this was the beginning of the very death of nature, the magical passage to the winter, when the days grow darker and the skies at dusk are “painted” with the colors of fire and the very land takes this form. All of this was thought to be held most prominently during the evening before All Hallows, from where the modern name Halloween or “All Hallows Evening” comes from. The term itself originated in Scotland.
By the passing of time and with the coming of the christian faith and all the tales from the old pagan past that were told to people to scare them and never think about the pagan beliefs again, new customs evolved that had little to do with both the pagan celebrations and the christian All Saints Day or later called All Souls Day on November the 2nd.
Some people burned candles or used lighted hollowed-out turnips (“jack-o-lanterns”) to drive away the malevolent spirits of the dead on the eve of All Hallows that would enter the world of the living at this very night. The custom of adults and children disguising themselves to trick the spirits or the living and beg for coins or food is the origin of “trick or treating”. However, to the Celts, it was true that they believed that a gap between this world and the next, could be indeed opened, and the spirits of the dead, other beings and even the gods, would come to the mortal world. Some people held the celebrations for the dead, hoping that they could have any contact with their ancestors, others would disguise themselves with masks because they feared that in this day, the spirits or the gods would come and take them to the next world, since this was also the day that the deities and their helpers came to collect souls.
All over Europe, before the christianizations, people rejoiced at this day because they knew that this was the day that they would be so close to their ancestors. In northern Europe, there were many celebrations held during the month of October, such as the Dísir, honoring the female ancestors and the female deities. The Alfablót, to honor the spirits of the land to help in the harvest or to thank them for the harvesting time during the year. This was also the time were no stranger to the families living in each farm, could come near, because it was a time for very private celebrations for each family, when they could join with their deceased and feast with them near their buriel mounds at the farm. There was the myth, all over Europe, that this was also the time of the Wild Hunt, and each culture has its tales of the gods, the spirits of the ancestors and the spirits of animals, running across the sky searching for souls, to take away those who were dying, to take people at random if the gods thought that their time had come or to take brave heroes, worthy to be in the presence of the gods.
As Celtic immigrants from Scotland and Ireland came into the United States during the XIX century the spirit and essence of Halloween was rekindled. The American pumpkin replaced the turnip to make the jack-o-lanterns, and as such tit became the most prominent decoration of this holiday in the American culture.