Halloween! Jack-o-lanterns and trick or treaters, costumes and fortune tellers…but where did they all come from? The truth is that what we celebrate today is a stew of traditions made up of over 2000 years of rituals and superstitions and it all started with the Celts.
The festival of Samhain is the ancestor of our Halloween. The Celts celebrated their new year on the first of November and the evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve. Celts believed that the night before the new year was associated with death and that the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. Ghosts were believed to walk the earth and otherworldly spirits made it easy for priests to predict the future so fortune telling became synonymous with this time of year.
Samhain marked the end of summer and harvest and the beginning of the dark days of winter. On this day, the people lit huge bonfires and decked themselves with animal pelts and costumes to ward off the ghosts of the underworld, who they believed made mischief by destroying crops and causing trouble. When they returned home, they would light their hearths with kindlings from the sacred bonfires to keep the spirits at bay and to help protect their homes during the harsh winter that lay ahead.
It is easy to see that our jack-o-lanterns are a descendant of these fires and were used to keep evil spirits from entering homes when doors were open. Candy is symbolic of the sacrifices made to the trouble-making spirits walking the earth and costumes are an obvious connection to our traditions today. Fortune telling is evident in games like bobbing for apples, which was an attempt at foreseeing the future and matchmaking for young men and women. The first person to bite an apple was believed to be the next one in the group to be married. If a girl bit into an apple and placed the fruit beneath her pillow, superstition claimed, she would see her true love in a dream.
So many traditions rooted in the rich imagination and practices of the past are still practiced today without a thought of where they came from. As you build that roaring fire this Halloween and watch the drones of candy begging sprites and gremlins going door to door and see the flickering faces of the carved pumpkins in dark night, think about how long our ancestors have been honoring this night as a clashing of the the worlds of the living and the dead.
So much of our Halloween night is a throwback to the celebration of Samhain and we continue to find ways to protect ourselves from the evil spirits that might be lurking in the darkness…and manage to have a little fun at the same time.