HolidayHop: Halloween and Samhain
Written by Bwog Staff
Halloween is certainly not a day to give thanks. And it certainly isn’t a day to honor or remember historical figures or noble members of society. But it is a bit more than a night of debauchery and terror tacked onto the end of October. Bwog’s Pagan Affairs Bureau Chief Brian Wagner explains.
The name “Halloween” comes from “All-Hallows-Eve,” which first cropped up in the 1600s and has its roots in Old English. Because double-hyphenated words weren’t even hip in the Renaissance, it was shortened soon after. The name references the massive Catholic holiday following on Nov. 1, “All Saints’ Day,” or “All Hallows,” a celebration of saints and martyrs (think hallowed ground and it clicks). One would think the night would be a bit more somber and less secular, but despite the origins of its name, Halloween and its attendant observation is almost completely rooted in the Celtic-pagan holiday of Samhain.
Samhain, when roughly translated from Old Irish, means “Summer’s End,” a celebration of the fall harvest on October 31st. The Celtic people believed that it marked the boundary between the “lighter half” of the year and the “darker half.” As the temporal boundaries blur, so does the boundary between our world and the spirit world, allowing ghosties and ghouls to cross over for one night. In efforts to spook the spooks, the Celts would don frightening masks and costumes (because they apparently believed that these spirits were none too bright). They even enlisted the help of large turnips, hollowed out and carved with scary images, because few things are more frightening to an evil spirit than a small vegetable with its angry face on. Pumpkins being larger and more numerous in the new world, the transition seemed natural.
The Celts also lit many bonfires and sacrificed animals (surprise, they’re pagan). They would walk between the pyrotechnics as a sort of purification ritual, and the bones of animals freshly slaughtered for winter meats were tossed into the flames. And then there was the divination: villagers would peel apples and study their shapes, roast nuts over a fire and watch their movement, and drop egg whites into water and pretend that it meant something. Again, they didn’t have the Internet.
Trick-or-treating, though, can be traced back to Christianity. As far back as the Middle Ages, poor people would travel from house to house on All Saints’ Day begging for food in exchange for prayers for newly departed souls. Trick-or-treating as we know it developed in Scotland and Ireland sometime around the 1800s and was referred to as “guising,” which involved children dressing up in costumes and offering to perform tricks at their neighbors’ houses in return for candy and other goodies. Later children learned to extort with the threat of the trick rather than barter with the exchange of services.
Take all these traditions, add a few dozen popes and simmer in the New World for a few hundred years and out pops one of the most fun days of the year. And yes, it is vaguely connected to a couple of spiritual Christian holidays, but at least over the course of the past 200 years or so, Halloween has really taken on an almost completely secular identity of its own. Still, if there is one day to reach back to our pagan, boozer, squash-mutilating, superstitious roots, it’s good ol’ Samhain. So go for it. Midterms are (mostly) over. Stick your head in a tub of water and try to pull out an apple with your mouth.