Also known as Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, or All Saints Eve.
It is celebrated on October 31st in many countries around the world. It is associated with pumpkin carving, trick or treating, scary movies and ghost stories. But what is it really? Where did it come from?
The ancient Celts celebrated a Pagan festival they called Samhain, which marked the end to their harvest season and the Celtic New Year (November 1st) which marked the beginning of the long, dark winter. It is known that Celtic days started and ended at sunset, so the celebrations began after sunset on October 31st and ran into November 1st. They gathered en mass, ate huge feasts, and had large bonfires to ward off ghosts and wore disguises to protect themselves from evil spirits.
They also believed that the veil between the world of the living and the Otherworld was thinner at this time of year, as well as the Spring fire festival of Beltaine. Spirits and fairies could travel to our world, and the souls of the dead could visit their homes, so a place was set for them at the table. The Pagan gods were also offered gifts of food and drink, and it is said that sacrifices were made to appease them and bring good fortune for the coming year.
As with many Pagan holidays, the early Christians incorporated it into their own religious beliefs. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III deemed November 1st to be All Saints Day. Over time, this holiday began to include some of the traditions associated with Samhain, and eventually became what we know as Halloween.
In western societies, carving pumpkins, wearing costumes and trick or treating are all standard Hallowe’en activities. But I remember my Hallowe’en evenings living in Scotland. We would have the fireplace going, there would be traditional roasted nuts, and we would “bob” for apples. And we would have a turnip lantern carved by my mum. Pumpkins were not commonplace in the UK back then. “Guisers” (people in disguise) would come to our door, but they had to perform to earn their treat. A song, or a poem. These are just a few of the commonplace traditions in Ireland and Britain. Fortune telling games are also still popular, including “scrying”, or mirror gazing. Gazing into the fires was also a method of divination.
Hallowe’en didn’t reach North America until Colonial times, and it wasn’t well received by the Puritan societies of New England. However, with the immigration of thousands of Irish and Scottish in the late 18th and into the 19th centuries, it became more popular and spread across the country, with peoples of different race, social stature and religions.
Hallowe’en this year is a different beast altogether. Thanks to Coronavirus, trick or treating has been cancelled. Large groups are not allowed to gather, so no parties either. But there are still treats to be eaten, scary movies to watch, and traditions we can still participate in at home. So if you celebrate, grab a blanket and flashlight (torch) and tell ghost stories, cuddle up on the couch with a pet and a good Hallowe’en movie, or read about haunted places. Whatever you do, have a safe and spooky night!
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