WASHINGTON, October 29, 2013 — Thursday is Halloween, a time in America that has been marked by fake cobwebs, pirate costumes, keggers for the adults, and trick or treating for the kids. It has been celebrated as part of the “American religion” since the mid to late 19th century, during the greatest waves of European immigrants to our shores.
But where did Halloween come from?
There are several explanations for its origin, one being the Roman festival of the dead “Parentalia”, but another origin, not necessarily exclusive from the Roman one, is from the ancient Celtic holy day of Samhain (sa-wain). And indeed many of the traditions we celebrate on Halloween stem from Celtic/Gaelic culture.
Samhain, which means November in Irish, was the end of summer and the Harvest season in the Celtic calendar, towns made preparations for winter. It was the last great feast held outdoors before the cold months came. On the surface, it was a celebration of the Harvest preparations and Summer, much like events such as “Moonfest” that are held all over the country. However there was more to this festival than meets the eye.
You see the Celts believed that on Samhain the veil between the living and the dead was dropped for one day, and the spirits of the living could intermingle with the spirits of the dead. It has also been speculated, that this feast was a celebration of the dead they had lost since the last Samhain. This would include warriors lost in battle, children lost at birth, the old, and the sick. All of the years dead would be celebrated. In hopes of guiding the spirits of their loved ones to their resting place, large bonfires would be lit to draw the spirits and provide them a path to the “otherside. “
There is one legend, in which an Irish king every year would have his cooks set out a meal in his hall for his fallen warriors every Samhain. The living would eat outside, and the dead could have the hall. According to legend, a place is set for every warrior who was lost in that last year, and the finest food is prepared. Guards are placed at every door, and no one is allowed in on pain of death. And as the story goes, every year the king enters the hall to find the food gone with no evidence of who may have eaten the food meant for the battle slain.
But that was not all. The spirits that could now cross over into the land of the living were dangerous, and often played tricks both playful and malevolent on the living. In an effort to stop those spirits from meddling with the dead and playing tricks on them, the living would dress up in costumes, masks, capes, and horns in order to fool the spirits into thinking that they were one of them. The idea of trick or treat, comes from the tradition of going to a house and getting the inhabitant to give you a treat, since the person does not know if you are living or dead because of your costumes, he would either have to give you a treat, or suffer the consequences of a trick. Trick or treat.
It does not stop there. Even the Jack O’ Lantern is reputed to have roots in Celtic mythology. Jack O’ Lantern, or Stingy Jack, was the rogue of rogues of Irish mythology. Stingy Jack, a drifter, derelict, and a drunkard, was overheard by the Devil talking about how he had tricked, lied, stolen, and drank his way through life. The Devil, always up for a challenge, wanted to see just how good Jack was. To make a medium story short, Jack met the Devil, got him drunk, and tricked him into giving him 10 more years. 10 years later, Jack tricked the Devil again into never taking his soul to Hell. When Jack died, Heaven refused to take him, and when Jack went down to Hell to try to gain entrance the Devil politely reminded him of their deal. Instead, the Devil gave jack an ember of Hell, and a hallow gourd for a lantern to illuminate a pathway through the Netherworld. And so when the veil between the living and the dead is dropped on Samhain, we can see Stingy Jack of the Lantern (Jack O’ Lantern) trying to get into Heaven or Hell. Look up this story independently it is worth the read.
But what happened to Samhain that turned it into Halloween? Well, frankly it was the Christians. Like many Roman, Nordic, Celtic, and Germannic traditions, the Christians missionaries who came to Celtic lands were very good at connecting pagan holidays with Christian celebrations and traditions. The Vikings were converted by missionaries comparing Odin as the All-Father to God the Father, while demonizing Loki as the trickster or even the Devil. The Celtic tribes had several influences on modern Christianity through the assimilation of their traditions. St. Patrick was very astute at connecting feast days of Saints or other days of Obligations to Celtic holidays, just as the Romans did with Saturnalia. In Ireland, Samhain was turned into All Hallows Eve, which was the day, conveniently enough, before the Christians celebrated their own feast of the dead in All Souls Day. The Christian missionaries, and the Bishops and Cardinals of the Church, were smart enough to align their liturgical season of the dead with the same celebrations of dozens of yet unconverted cultures from Ireland to Asia, making their eventual conversion much easier.
Celebrating Samhain, and its partner Beltaine which was replaced by May Day and Easter, soon became pagan, and forbidden in many Christian areas of Celtic nations. However being the people that they were, the Celtic peoples of Europe continued to celebrate the feast of the dead their own way.
Which brings us to how it came to America. The latter half of the 19th century saw a vast migration of Celtic, and a great many other, peoples from Europe. Not to say that a plentiful amount were not already in the United States, just that this time period saw a particularly heavy volume. Spurred by the terrible conditions in Ireland such as the famine, and British oppression, millions of Irish made their way to the United States, and so did their customs.
Over one hundred and fifty years later Halloween is alive and well in the United States. It is a time for mischief, to embrace the dying of Summer with everything from haunted hayrides to watching scary movies. But it is not just for children anymore as it had been during most of the 20th century, adults have parties, bars throw costume events, and it has become another excuse for Americans to drink in excess. However all of these things are arguably in the spirit of the holiday. It is one last chance in many respects to have fun outside, and get ready for the coming winter. But it also has a more mischievous side to it, Halloween is the one time of year that we are not only forgiven for being bad but it is encouraged. We get to get scared, we get to play tricks, we get to pull pranks, and it is all in the name of the holiday. Get it all out! That’s the idea, because you don’t know how long or how bad winter will be, and this could be your last chance to live it up outside.
So when you are celebrating Halloween this year, and it feels a little too corporate for you, a little too commercialized, remember what it was originally about and maybe you could not only enjoy it, but it could be good for you. Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Samhain, is on the surface about the death of summer, it is the funeral party for the end of the long, warm months. But beneath the surface, Halloween, All Hallows Eve, and Samhain offers all of us a chance to lift a toast to those who we lost in the last year, and to light their way home.
Happy Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Parentalia, and Samhain.
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