The name alone elicits a wonderful cocktail of joy and terror. Memories of gallivanting around the neighborhood in between ghouls and ghosts, and as we grow older, eggs bursting against cob-web adorned windows.
You may celebrate Halloween, or at the very least, you’ve heard of it. But, do you know anything about the origins of Halloween — the true origins. Behold, as we unravel the wickedly and shockingly true: Untold History of Halloween
Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And haud their Halloween
The term Halloween was first recorded in print in 1556, but it was popularized by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, an unyielding provocateur and hard-drinker who took aim at the social and religious norms of his time. Burns is also heralded as the national poet of Scotland, despite never yearning for such a title.
The poem is a vivid description of the Halloween related activities and traditions practiced by Scots in the 18th century, that Burns witnessed firsthand. These pagan-inspired rites hearkened back to ancient Celtic ceremonies that persisted across the English continent into the 1700s, most stubbornly in Scotland, despite the wishes of the Catholic Church. On Halloween, or ‘All Hallows Evening’ (we’ll come back to this later), they’d indulge in fun, pranks, food, and appeased evil spirits.
The Celtic festival of Samhain, the echoes of which Robert Burns captured in rhyme, has been identified by historians as the original forerunner to Halloween. Samhain marked the division of the year, between the lighter half (summer), and the darker half (winter). As green turned to brown, crops began to rot, and trees turned barren, the festival of Samhain would commence.
Celebrated annually on October 31st, Samhain was an ominous celebration of the dying year, a harvest festival that teetered between life and death. For these ancient tribes, a bad harvest meant starvation, and a good harvest meant another year of life; Samhain reflected this duality.
Believed to be a compulsory celebration, Samhain could last for days, during which Druid priests would lead animal sacrifices and preside over community fires, which would attract fluttering bats; their iconography now inseparable from Halloween. Participation in Samhain was compulsory, the alternative was believed to be illness and death. Not that it was all doom and gloom, as texts depict gluttonous feasts and copious consumption of alcohol.
Scary Monsters and Not-So-Nice Spirits
Amongst other things, during Samhain Celtic tribes believed that the veil to the other side thinned, allowing spirits and monsters to walk the mortal plane, and unfortunate wanderers to find themselves lost in the land of the dead. The ancient peoples feared these otherworldly creatures and would dress in costume to ward off the threat of kidnapping by fairies.
The birth of one of our most cherished Halloween traditions stems from fear of supernatural abduction. Sounds about right, doesn’t it? (image caption)
Fairies were far from the only monster the Celts feared would breach the barrier between worlds during Samhain. Lady Gywn was a headless woman dressed all in white, accompanied by a black pig, who would lure unsuspecting wanderers to a grizzly end; The Puca were shapeshifting, mishevious spirits known to disappear children from villages; and then there’s Stingy Jack, who deserves paragraphs all his own.
Stingy Jack was once a man, a conniving drunk with a pension for mendacity and cruelty. Jack’s reputation proceeded him, and eventually, Satan himself heard of his devilish exploits. Driven by a jealous fervor, unwilling to be upstaged by a mere mortal, Satan sought Jack out at his favorite pub, impatiently eager to drag him to Hell.
Digesting the gravity of his predicament, Stingy Jack asked the Devil if he’d transform into a silver coin so he could have one last drink, and unexpectedly, the Devil obliged. Quick-witted as ever, Jack scooped up the coin and placed it in his pocket with a silver cross, effectively trapping the Devil.
For the following decades until his death, Jack continued to masterfully outwit Satan, breaking down the ruler of Hell until he pledged Jack would never be taken to his brimstone kingdom. Upon passing over, his liver succumbing to years of abuse, Jack drifted up to the pearly gates, but was refused entry due to a lifetime of sin. Jack plummeted down to Hell, but there too he was refused entry, cursed to endlessly wander the earth in solitude.
To ward of Jack, and other evil spirits, villagers would carve faces into turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes and beets. As Irish settlers, the successors of the Celts, immigrated to the US, Pumpkins became the primary vessel of choice. This tradition was merged into the greater American Culture, becoming the much-beloved Jack-o’-lanterns.
Once again, another Halloween tradition blossomed from dark, crimson-soaked roots.
All Hallows Eve((n)(ing))
So how did Samhain become Halloween? Well, there’s an unlikely ally in this continuation — the Catholic Church. Before we get to their involvement, let’s rewind a bit.
The Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic tribes by 43 A.D., ruling over their lands for centuries afterward. During their rule, Samhain was absorbed into Roman festivals such as Feralia, which celebrated the passing of the dead and the appeasement of ancestral spirits; Lemuria, a time when malevolent spirits could haunt the living, if they were not placated with sweets; and a celebration of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees, who is commonly associated with apples — hence, why we bob for them, rather than candy, during Halloween.
During the centuries that followed the fall of the Celtic tribes, Christianity spread through Rome, being officially recognized by Emperor Constantine in 1313. An untold number of believers were sacrificed and slaughtered before this change could come. By the 9th century, Christianity had firmly usurped the Celtic way of life and Christian practices were adopted by their descendants. Still, remnants of Celtic traditions stubbornly remained (as I’ve already documented).
Seeking to cement the conversion of pagan tribes, such as the Celts, the Chruch began co-opting their festivals, ceremonies, and traditions. Although venerations of the dead were viewed suspiciously and as ‘demonic’ by Church leaders, and still are today, they understood their importance and created their own festival of death, All Saints Day, which fell on November 1st, and included large bonfires and costumes of angels and devils, borrowing heavily from the Celtic traditions.
At the time, All Saints Day was known as Hallowmas, which roughly translates to ‘mass of the saints’. October 31st, the eve of Hallowmas, became All Hallows Evening, then All Hallows Even, All Hallows Eve, and finally, Halloween.
The traditions of ‘All Hallows Evening’ remained intricately linked to Samhain, despite the Church’s best efforts. They continued through the time of Robert Burns, through the mass immigration of Irish to the US during the 1800s, and remains firmly rooted in modern-day Halloween celebrated by millions every year.
And So, The End is Near
Halloween is a patchwork holiday, a mishmash of different cultures and ceremonies refined in a boiling cauldron of occult practices and venerations of the dead. It’s the product of thousands of years of death, a celebration of the here, now, and after(life).
The lineage of Halloween is a macabre and winding path that reflects humanity’s primal fear of the unknown. The echoes of this fear reverberate to this day, even if we no longer recognize it for what it truly is. Samhain’s spirit, and others, walks amongst us, and just as the pagan tribes of before, we engage in ancient practices to appease the unrestful souls.
The next time you bob for an apple, or dress as a devil, or delight in fearful good times, I hope you pay homage to Halloween’s wicked past, and think a little bit harder about that bump in the night….