They had four major celebration times, the fall time being the biggest and most significant. It was important because, November 1, was their calendar New Year. It marked the beginning of winter, the dark season and the end of summer, the season of light. It was called “Samhaim” (pronounced Sah-ween) or “The Vigil of Samhaim”. It was the Gaelic Harvest Festival. The name came from an Old Irish language meaning, summer’s end.
This was the time of the year when the cattle had to be moved down from the high pastures and the crops had to be harvested and stored. It was a time when the weaker animals were chosen out to be slaughtered for winter food, which is one of the reasons the skulls and skeletons have become a symbol of this festival. Another reason is because it was also believed by the Celts, that during festival time, the veil was very thin, the ghosts of the dead could mingle with the living. Those who had died during the year were in a kind of “Limbo”, until this time of the year, when the spirits would be making their way to “the other world”. Some Celts set the table for the friendly spirits and left treats on their door steps. They also lit candles to honor the dead and help their loved ones find their way.
There were many, especially in Europe, who was uneasy about this time of the year. These were people dependant on nature. Their superstitions made them fearful of all dark things, like ghosts, demons and fairies. They felt that ghosts and demons could damage their crops and even effect natural forces. The simple peasants believed that the cold envious ghosts were outside their warm houses, longing to get in. Often folks who went out after dark wore masks to keep from being recognized by any of the ghosts. From the earliest times, superstitious people have worn masks when droughts or other disasters struck. They believed that the demons that had brought the misfortune would be frightened off by the unfamiliar, hideous faces.
During the days of the festival of Samhaim, people gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables into bonfires. The Druids, or Celtic priests, built bonfires to honor the dead and supposedly carry them on their journey. Most of all, they believed the bonfires keep the spirits away from the living. The Druids taught that the fires would strengthen the Sun God and give him power to overcome the darkness, so the sun could continue through the winter. The Celts wore costumes of animal heads and skins and attempted to tell each others fortune. At these great scared bonfires, usually built in pairs, the people would walk and lead their livestock in between the fires as part of a cleansing ritual and for protection from unknown evils. As part of this ritual, the bones of livestock (not human, as hear-say might exaggerate) were cast into the flames.
By AD 43, Romans had conquered the Celtic territories. They ruled for about 400 years, during that time the “Roman Feast of Pomona”, who was their Goddess of fruits and seeds and their festival of the dead, called Parentalia, became entwined with the Celts Samhain celebrations.
The breakdown of the Roman society was dramatic. It ushered in The Middle-ages or medieval times. The countries became divided into a patchwork of petty rulers, who were all incapable of supporting a solid society structure. The Catholic Church, (which means universal church) was the major unifying cultural influence.
St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, converted a great many Celts to Christianity before his death (AD 493).
“All Saints Day” was set by Catholic Pope Gregory III (731-741). It was the hope of the church to rid the world of the old festivals and give them a new one. The day was meant to honor all dead saints. Some say that the church tried to sprinkle holy water on the festival to clean it up, but to the people it was still the day to honor all dead. Parades and festivals now involved angels and devils.
Soon after “All Saints Day”, which was also called “All Hallows Day”, was established, witchcraft began to come about. Oct 31 was renamed by the people as the “Night of the Witch”. It was believed by the peasants of the time, that the devil and his followers would come out and make a mockery of the church’s All Hallows Day celebrations. Since Celts, like so many other cultures, started each day on the evening before. Eventually it was called by the Scottish variation “All Hallows Even”. Later it was labeled as “Hallowe’en”.
OTHER HALLOWEEN SYMBOLS
Witchcraft became evident every where. In old England, some witches rode horseback. Poor witches went by foot and carried a broom or pole to aid in vaulting across streams. New witches were initiated with an ointment smeared on their foreheads which confused their minds, sped up their pulse and numbed their feet. They were told they were flying over the land and sea. Some believed it.
An old Irish legend was told of “Jack”, a shifty villain and trickster so wicked that neither God nor the devil wanted him. Rejected by both, he has only the light of a turnip lantern, as he wanders the world endlessly looking for a place to rest (Legend of the Jack O Lantern). Later North Americans used “pompions” later called pumpkins, because they were larger and more available.
The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door began at medieval times. It was called “souling” in Ireland and Britain and was practiced even as far as Italy (as mentioned in Wm. Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Veronia”). On the night before All Souls Day (Nov. 2), which eventually was fused with All Saints Day, the poor would guise themselves and carrying lanterns made of scooped turnips, would go door to door, or even village to village, receiving food, cakes (called soul-cakes), or coins in return for their prayers for the souls of the dead. The more they gave the poor, the more prayers the poor would promise to give on behalf of their dead relations. People of this time believed the dead needed many prayers, even from strangers to help the wandering dead souls find the passage to heaven.
The late middle ages came a period of calamities in agriculture because of climate changes (The Great Famine of 1315-1317). The black plague also hit Europe killing one-third of the population. The superstitious peasants blamed much of their hard times on evil spirits. Many of them feared cats, especially black ones who could sneak almost “invisibly” around at night. Because of this fear, ironically they killed cats, which could have helped prevent the rat infestation which carried the devastating black plague.
The first Scottish Halloween games were traditionally forms of divining one’s future spouse. For instance: the person would peel an apple, throw the peel over their shoulder and the long peel would fall into the shape of the initial of the person they would marry. Another game: An unmarried woman would gaze into a mirror in a darkened room until she saw the face of their future husband or a skull, which meant they would die before marrying. These games remained popular into the 1940’s.
When Irish immigrants fled Ireland because of the potato famine, many Halloween traditions came with them. The Southern Colonies of the U.S., began to have “hallowe’en play parties”, sharing scary stories, tales of dead family members, telling each other’s fortunes, dancing and singing.
Thousand of Halloween postcards were produced in the 20th Century which shows children trick or treating and Halloween games being played. Trick or treating seems to have become more wide spread when costumes were mass-produced in the 1930’s.
Through the years the tales of horror and ghost encounters have fed the imagination of writers, story tellers and even pranksters, but most, always keeping the elements of autumn, corn husks, ravens, pumpkins and scarecrows, mixed with evil spirits, the occult and monsters. Werewolves, vampires and mummies have been added, as world travelers shared their tales from other lands.
We do love being a little scared, don’t we?