From the ancient festival of Samhain to Halloween

Are you ready to celebrate Samhain? Have you got your candies ready, your Jack o’ Lantern carved, your costume picked out, your choice of horror films selected, and your house decorated? 

What’s Sabhain? Don’t you mean Halloween?

No, I mean Samhain – it’s a Gaelic word, pronounced sow-in by the way – and it’s a pagan festival which originated among the Celts in Ireland and Scotland a really long time ago. But yes, you’re kind of right. Somewhere along the way the Celtic spiritual tradition of Samhain got transformed into what we now regard as being Halloween. And boy has it changed from its ancient origins.

The Celtic Pagan tribes believed that for a couple of days around this time of year (October 31st to November 1st) the veil between the human and spiritual worlds was lifted, allowing the souls of the dead to pass easily through to the realm of the living.

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The gap between two worlds

Because of this opening between the two worlds, it was feared that demons and evil spirits could also walk among the living. 

As a means of protecting themselves the people started to wear masks and dress as demons in the hope they might not be recognized as human, and would pass as just another demon on the prowl.

So scared were people at this time of year, they also left offerings of food and drinks for the spirits, demons, and fairies in the hope that they would be spared any misfortune over the coming dark and cold months.

Fire was an integral part of Samhain. Bonfires were lit to ward of the evil spirits and to bring brilliant light into the darkening nights. 

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The Jack O’ Lantern also had its origins in the Samhain obsession with fire and light. Burning coals were carried inside the hollowed-out core of a turnip (rutabaga/swede), making both the light and the fire something portable, and ensuring that the owner would not be caught unawares by any roaming spirits.

The blurring of traditions

Sometime around the 5th century Christianity made its way westward and the ways of the Celtic Pagans were forever changed. However, despite the intentions of the church, many of the long-held pagan beliefs were intertwined with the new religious practices. 

Samhain was given a make-over and renamed Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, and was dedicated to the souls of the saints who should be prayed for on these newly-consecrated days.

In fact, during Halloween the poor would call to the homes of the more well off promising to pray for the souls of the inhabitants’ deceased in return for a morsel of food. These alms came to be known as ‘soul cakes’.

In the fifth century, and on the orders of Pope Boniface IV the church attempted to end the association between Paganism and Halloween by moving the festival from November to May. Despite this attempt to banish the Pagan way of life for once and for all, the fires still burned at the end of every October. 

In the 9th century Pope Gregory restored the Samhain/Halloween festival to their rightful place in the calendar. In addition to November 1st being claimed as All Saints’ Day, and the following day, November 2nd became All Souls’ Day.

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Traditions across the sea

During the mid 19th century and the influx of European settlers to the United States, the Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their own Samhain and Halloween traditions with them.

Instead of the traditional hollowed out turnip Jack O’ Lantern the new arrivals discovered that pumpkins were a much more suitable alternative. Fierce faces were carved into the pumpkin to carry on the age-old tradition of scaring evil spirits from the home.

The Halloween night practice of trick or treating also derived from the ancient Celtic traditions of gift-giving to appease the spirits. However, by the end of the nineteenth century the church once again attempted to remove Halloween’s ghoulish Pagan past by encouraging community events centered on communities and jovial get-togethers.

However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the term Trick or Treat was officially coined in the US. Children began to dress in fanciful costumes going from house to house asking for treats in return for a song, story, or trick of some description.

Old Halloween games like ducking for nuts and snap apple were revived. The fact that their roots were firmly fixed in the Pagan Samhain festivities lost their importance.

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Halloween goes to the movies

With the evolution of television and movies it wasn’t long before a host of international film studios got in on the act and capitalized on people’s love affair with the thrill of being scared.

And so it was that these studios realized that the optimum time to release these ‘Horror’ movies was just before the Halloween festivities. 

Early movies like Frankenstein, Nosferatu, Phantom of the Opera, The Wolf Man, morphed into their modern counterparts like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the ultimate seasonal thriller, Halloween.

Halloween began its journey through our lives as the Pagan festival of Samhain, a time when the ancient Celts felt a closeness to the deceased, and according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey ended up as $9-billion industry by 2018. 

During its evolution Halloween took on many new traditions while others were transformed to suit the changing centuries, locations, and technologies available.

But many of the traditions and superstitions remain in place. While not entirely associated with death, spirits, or the underworld, these superstitions were born of a time when people had a closer connection with their spiritual selves.

Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash

The future of Halloween

According to several – almost identical – 2015 online sources the future of Halloween is rooted in newly developing technologies.

The articles predict a host of ways in technology will benefit the constantly evolving festival:

  • Apps to alert parents when kids have had too much candy
  • Virtual reality headset haunted house tours
  • Parents will be able to monitor their children’s location at all times
  • 3-D printers will be used to make costumes and props

Most of these technologies are already commonplace, but have yet to have any influence on the festival. Many still rely on traditional costumes, although many have now transformed from being the typical Frankensteins, werewolves, or vampires to being more of a social commentary. 

Children and adults are now taking to dressing as celebrities, politicians, musicians, astronauts, or characters straight from viral social media posts. Perhaps this is the real major change ahead for a festival with its roots embedded in the dawn of modern history.

This year when you don your costume take a moment to remember the origins of Halloween and what has become a fun-filled festival for everyone, a long way from a time when demons and evil spirits lurked behind every rock and tree.

Be safe out there and have fun.