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31 October 2012

Halloween's Haunted Past and Present

Happy Halloween Everyone! Photo: Mount Dora Ghost Walk.
Happy Halloween Everyone! Photo: Mount Dora Ghost Walk.

In anticipation of the those Halloween ghouls and ghosts who plan to tread upon my doorstep on All Hallows Eve, I have often wondered about the origins of Halloween and why we celebrate the traditions we enjoy today. After Christmas, Halloween is my favorite holiday and I revel in all that is Halloween—from dressing up in costume and trick-or-treating to haunted tales recounted by the light of the jack-o'-lantern. And so I set out upon my journey into the past to discover the origins of today's Halloween manifestations—born of rituals and customs bestowed upon us by European civilizations of long ago. I hope you enjoy this haunted tour through Halloween's past and present.

Dating back to more than 2,000 years ago, Halloween, also known as "Samhain" (pronounced Sow-in or Sow-an), "All Hallows Eve," "Witches Night," "Snap-Apple," or "Lamswool," is deeply rooted in ancient pagan rituals that have paved the way to the Halloween traditions we celebrate today!


"Snap-Apple Night"—painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833 was inspired by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832.

The Celtic festival known as "Samhain" which means literally "summer's end," was celebrated by the Celts from Ireland, Great Britain and France. It marks the end of summer and harvest season—representing life; and the beginning of the long, dark winter – representing death; thus connecting the cycles of the seasons with the cycles of life. Through this connection, it was believed that upon this night, October 31, the veil between life and death became delicately thin.


The ancient Halloween ritual of Samhain. Photo: Wikimedia.org.
The ancient Halloween ritual of Samhain. Photo: Wikimedia.org.

According to Celtic lore, it was on Halloween night that Saman, the Lord of the Death, summoned the spirits of those who died that year, to walk once again, to walk upon the road to afterlife. En route, these crossing-over spirits often stirred up mayhem for the living by destroying crops and wreaking havoc. To protect themselves from these troublesome souls, villagers disguised themselves as ghouls so the spirits, whom they feared, would pass them by. They offered food and wine to them and to Saman in hopes he would judge the unfortunate souls less harshly along their otherworldly journey. Also, Celtic priests or Druids attempted to divine the secrets of the afterlife and the future by creating huge "bone fires" or bonfires and making sacrificial offerings to Saman—ruler of the world for the following six months. And so the traditions of dressing in costume, offering candy and gathering around bonfires were born.

After the Romans conquered much of the land from the Celts, Celtic traditions were integrated into Rome and thus the "Festival of Pomona," the Roman goddess of the harvest, was born. This festival celebrated the end of the harvest particularly with nuts and apples which were used to divine the future of one's spouse since the apple represented love and fertility.


Pamona - the Roman Goddess of the Harvest. Photo: Wikimedia.
Pamona - the Roman Goddess of the Harvest. Photo: Wikimedia.

Upon the arrival of Christianity, the traditions changed yet again. In an effort to convert the pagans to Christians as quickly and smoothly as possible, the Church knew that they had to blend their beliefs with those of Christianity. Actually, it was Pope Gregory III who moved "All Saints Day" or "All Hallows Day," the latter from England, from May 1 to November 1, to honor the pagan traditions. October 31, the eve of "All Hallows Day" became "All Hallows Eve" or "Hallowe'en" and ultimately "Halloween." Later, a French order of the church declared November 2 as "All Souls Day" so ALL souls of the departed, not just Saints, would be remembered at this time of the year. Collectively, all three days, October 31 – November 2, would become "Hallowmas."

Still, Christianity brought about more changes with prayers for the dead in lieu of sacrifices. Instead of appeasing the crossing spirits with food and wine, the Church encouraged the congregations to pray for the dead by carrying a hollowed out turnips lit by candlelight to represent a soul trapped in purgatory. In exchange for their prayers, they would receive "soul cakes."

Other changes through time included those of the Protestants who brought about scarecrows and mischief night, elements of the Guy Fawkes Night festivals that Britons celebrate today.


An Irish turnip lantern from the early 20th century. Wikimedia.org. Photo: Wikimedia.org.
An Irish turnip lantern from the early 20th century. Wikimedia.org.

Through time, it was the aggregation and integration of many cultures that grew into the Halloween traditions we celebrate around the world. As you make your way trick-or-treating in a Halloween costume or sitting down to carve out a jack-o'-lantern, think back to these time-honored customs that have remained within the fabric of society more than 2,000 years.

Happy Halloween!


Haunted Tales


8 comments:

  1. Much I didn't know in here, Jeff. The images are amazing. Next year I will be carving turnips as well as jack o'lanterns, for sure. Great post!

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    1. Hi there Lesley and thanks so much for stopping by. I too, learned a lot while researching this...truly a fascinating history of Halloween. Please send a pic of your turnip next year so I can add to the post!

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  2. Jeff, when St. Patrick wandered through Ireland he took the day (or week) and turned it into All Souls Day, which was celebrated on Nov 2 or before. St. Patrick had a way of taking the pagan holidays and dubbing them Christian with another name. He was pretty successful, but forgot the Irish have minds of their own. The Irish cross, the one with the circle, combines the Christian cross with a pagan circle. Yes, I can hear the protesting screams from here. Here's a link on All Souls Day. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Souls'_Day

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    1. Thank you my friend for the update!! I had to laugh out loud at your last comment! Very funny indeed. I really appreciate your comments and so will my readers!

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    2. Jeff, not sure why my earlier comment didn't register as me (Denise). Keep these wonderful stories coming!

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    3. It's probably Blogger's fault..LOL! I am so happy you identified yourself...not very often I receive "Unknown" comments...lots of anonymous posts but never Unknown. Cue Twilight Zone. ; )

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  3. yes we carve turnip lanterns here in Scotland - Jack O'lanterns. And my uncle remembers going out guising with coal blackening his face 80 years ago in Glasgow.

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    1. Hi there J! I am so happy to hear that my friend!! I love to find out how friends from around the world celebrate all of the holidays! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!!! Can't wait to hear from you on my Christmas posts too!!

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Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!