How on earth has Halloween managed to morph into some innocent, child friendly celebration day? Where kids dress up as pumpkins, collecting bowls of sweets from random strangers? It started out in the Celtic nations as the single darkest and most ominous day of the year for thousands of years.
Originally it was a pagan fire festival called Samhain. It was held at the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice and marked the end of the plentiful months of sunlight and harvest and the beginning of the dark season. Where it gets dark however, is because the Celts believed passionately that this was the most dangerous time of year as the usual barriers that existed to keep the spirit world and mortal world separate would break down leaving the people of the world vulnerable to hauntings and possession and attacks by malevolent demons. Some even heralded it as the likely point of the end of the world – with only the year it would happen an uncertainty. This was not a mild threat. They were absolutely terrified by this possibility and it called for a mammoth, co-ordinated effort to keep themselves safe.
To empower themselves against this annual threat they would light huge bonfires with a wheel (symbol of the sun) which would maintain a bright light for as long as possible (but a minimum of 3 days). They would dress up in costumes to make themselves look as terrifying as possible and dance around the fires. This was to try and scare away their adversaries. They would also sacrifice bulls and cocks and leave the sacrifices on burial mounds as gifts for their dead ancestors. The idea was, if there was going to be a war with invading malevolent ghosts, demons and spirits, they wanted to make sure that their own ancestors would fight on their side, to ensure the evil spirits were vanquished.
They took this ceremony very seriously. Everyone had to participate in it. There was an agreement between tribes that any who were at war had to suspend hostilities during the Samhain and put their differences aside until the end of the festival to make sure nothing got in the way of everyone’s involvement. Failure to take part was punishable by death.
At the end of the 3 days ceremony, if everyone was alive and not possessed by spirits, it was clear that the alliance between the living and the dead had once again been victorious over the spirit world. So, it would be followed by a great celebration for a further 6 days. It featured a great feast where places were set for both the living and the dead combatants. Women folk would chatter into the air, to bring the dead up to date with everything that had happened through the year and a lot of merriment would take place. All to celebrate having survived the threat of invasion by the spirit world.
There were regional variants. One that always amuses me is that our ancestors here in Wales did not think that the festivities above were anywhere near mad enough. So here in South Wales it was customary for young men to hurl burning logs at each others heads in a game of ‘chicken’.
This festival was a really big deal to the pagan Welsh. Something that was massively underestimated when Christianity came along. The church wanted to stamp out all pagan practices which could not be re-branded as Christian. It was hard to see a way of making Samhain into something that was Christian friendly so they attempted to bring this practise to an end. Unsuccessfully. So, rebrand was needed. Pope Boniface in the fifth century tried the idea of a festival in May where bonfires would be lit in homage and as a celebration of saints and martyrs. But he had seriously underestimated how terrified the masses descended from the ancient Britons were of invasion by the spirit world at the end of October, so the practise continued in spite of the papal decree. Then in the ninth century (so no rush then? Only took 400 years) Pope Gregory moved “All Saints Day” (known in old English as All Hallows Day) to 1st November. The name “Halloween” comes from “All Hallows Eve”, or the day before all Saint’s Day. He also made “All Souls Day” (the day when Christians leave offerings on the graves of our dead ancestors) the day after the old Samhain; on 2nd November.
Common people found this a bit easier to swallow but it still continued to be a day marked by burning bonfires for centuries to follow. Eventually the bonfire got moved a week, supposedly to commemorate the foiling of the gun powder plot to blow up parliament. We still run with that idea today in the UK. But both bonfire night and Halloween are just continuations of Samhain in one way or another.
What amazes me though is the scale of the Halloween festival we have today. People in America spend more money on decorations and costumes at Halloween than at any other time of year besides Christmas. It has become massive. Yet I can say with hand on heart, in the UK even as recently as the 1980s it just wasn’t a thing. Bobbing for apples was about as far as it went.
by Graham Loveluck-Edwards.
About: Graham Loveluck-Edwards is a historian and author who writes regular columns in the Buddy Magazine and The Glamorgan Star newspaper. He has also published books about the history, myths, legends and folklore of Wales. They include Legends and folklore of Bridgend and the Vale and Historic pubs of Wales. Available on Amazon (in the UK and Europe) and all good UK based bookshops. They can also be bought direct from the author’s website (at a discounted price) at http://grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk with shipping available worldwide