Hallowe’en: An Origins Story

Written by Jon-Michael Lindsey

 Photograph by   Raini Scott

Photograph by Raini Scott

Once again, Halloween is upon us. The night for trick or treating, parties with fancy dress, ghoulish make-up, and horror film marathons. I wonder, however, how many people actually know how this all started.

The Celtic tribes of Northern/Western Europe. who called the night, Samhain (those who follow the Old Path still call it that, pronounced, Sowhain). It was the New Year for the Celts, but it was also the time when the veil between the world of the living and the Other World was at its thinnest. It was a night for honouring the ancestors, in which a “dumb supper” was held in honour of those who had passed away, with the seat at the head of the table being left empty for the ancestors. The empty place would be served with food and drink, but the other guests were not permitted to look at the seat, as it brought misfortune to look directly at the dead. After the meal, the untouched plate and cup would be taken outside as an offering and left in the woods.

There is a trend of traditions that we see observe in modern times that are ancient and have developed dramatically over time. Apple-bobbing, for instance, came from the Romans. Apples were sacred to Pomona, the Roman Goddess of fruits, trees and gardens. They were forever amalgamating their traditions with that of the population they’d invaded. It was deemed that whoever was successful in getting the first apple with their teeth would have good luck for the next year. Luck also had its part to play in other origins of the Samhain festival. Disguises were worn to ward off evil, and masks were worn to scare the spirits back to their own realm, rather than getting stuck in ours. A large bonfire would also be lit to protect the tribes.

As for the pumpkins, this actually started in the middle ages. Initially turnips were used in Europe, carved out and candles were inserted into them as lanterns. This was for the bearer to use as they went door to door asking for food in return for a prayer for the dead. This changed to pumpkins in the USA in the 1800’s, as they were more readily available.

As the church became more dominant, it needed a way to attract people to be converted that was less problematic than brute force. Convergence became the key, so the Christian calendar adapted to incorporate the festivals of those people still following the Polytheistic, native religions of the land, thus creating a weird synergy. This is why, for example, All Saints Day is on November 1st.

So whatever your feelings about Halloween, however you choose to spend it, I wish you all a safe and enjoyable time as I raise a glass to our ancestors.


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