Halloween, the granddaddy of frightening days, the quintessential depiction of all things that go bump in the night, and the hands down leader in festive fun for both kids and adults, gets more popular each year. In fact, it’s now the second most popular holiday in the United States. The version we celebrate now is much different than the original celebration; the one that dates back to ancient Celtic traditions which was held on the night of October 31st. The pre-Christian holiday known as Samhain (pronounced SAH-win, SAH-ween, or SOW-in depending on dialect) has its roots in Celtic Ireland, dating back over 2,000 years ago. Samhain was the midpoint of the year between the light half (summer) and the dark half (winter) and was a time that those ancient people believed that the spirits of those departed that year could return to the world of the living. Beliefs were that on Samhain, the division between the living world and the underworld was at its thinnest; this allowed spirits to pass through the veil unimpeded. This invisible boundary between summer and winter was taken quite seriously, and on that night all boundaries were considered “in danger.” People avoided the boundaries between properties, or other geographical divisions. Ghosts were said to lurk on bridges, borders, and crossroads as well as traditional resting places for human souls such as cemeteries. The living, were not interested in mingling with the dead. Bonfires were lit and sacrifices made to help guide the recently dead to the otherworld.
On the subject of pre-Christians or Pagan holidays, there are four major and four minor celebration times during the year. Samhain was the most important of the four major Pagan holidays, looking at them from the context of ancient Europe. It was one of the four seasonal quarterly celebrations, but elevated in significance because it was also a celebration of the dead. Landowners and families would evaluate food supplies and herd animals to determine how resources would be allocated for winter at Samhain. Ancestors were honoured and invited to the home whilst harmful spirits, which were everywhere on that night, were warded off. The custom of wearing costumes and masks on Halloween can be traced back to early Samhain practices. People wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as harmful spirits and thus avoid harm from the real harmful spirits. It was a process of “blending in” with all things that go “bump in the night” and was essential when travelling from place to place. Huge bonfires and banquets played a large part in the celebrations. The hearth fire in each house was extinguished before the celebrations. Everyone in the town would gather bones of slaughtered animals which were burned in a communal bonfire. This fire was then used to reignite every household fire, cleansing the hearth for another year. Food was prepared for both the living and the dead. The symbolic food prepared for the ancestors was later distributed to those who were in need as a gesture of community.
For many reasons, Samhain was branded as a Pagan holiday by the church. The term Pagan was used interchangeably with evil, demonic, or “or the devil” in ancient times, so being branded as outright Pagan was not a good thing. Christian missionaries also branded the Celtic deities as evil, and associated them on the same level as the Christian devil. Druids were considered evil; worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits and identified as purveyors of a competing and dangerous religion. The Celtic underworld also was identified with the Christian Hell. In their attempts to erase Samhain and it’s significance, the Christians created a new holiday which would be celebrated on November 1st; known as All Saints Day. This day was also known as All Hallows Day, Hallowmas, and the Feast of All Saints. Its purpose was to honor all saints known and unknown, alive or dead. Once established, the church then started to spin the narrative, taking Samhain and repurposing it as All Hallows Eve, but in the process trying to diminish it significantly. Instead of being the most important holiday, the Christians tried to make it look like a pre-cursor to All Hallows Day and less significant. To support the attempted hijack, the church went a step further and tried to eradicate the beliefs in the traditional gods. They defined the old gods as being dangerous and malicious and were a threat to the belief system of Christianity. They branded the Druids and followers of the old religion as witches that communed with Satan (their version of Satan of course.) Many Druids went into hiding. Those who were not fortunate to escape the church’s wrath were summarily rounded up and executed after an extended session of torture at the hands of a church inquisitor.
The practice of manipulating and changing old “pagan” celebrations was commonplace by ancient Christians. Missionaries were attempting to convert all of Europe to Christianity in the first few centuries AD and they used every trick in the book to get it done. But the conversion process was filled with resistance. They were often met with native peoples who were reluctant to give up their ancient gods and practices. The church saw this, not as a roadblock, but as a way to actually increase their numbers. Instead of banning those old practices, the church incorporated them into the Christian doctrine, basically allowing new converts to enter with some familiarity. Church holidays were set to coincide with traditional holidays with the long-term plan to slowly phase out as much of the traditional elements over time and replacing them with Christian elements. Christmas, Easter, and others worked using this plan. Samhain, on the other hand, with its emphasis on the dead and supernatural was deemed evil by the church, posing a problem for potential converts and for the church.
The church continued to cherry-pick the elements of Samhain one by one until they eventually clouded their original meaning; this took hundreds of years. An example would be that people were encouraged to continue dressing up in costume, but not to frighten unwelcome spirits, instead to honor Christian saints. Church sponsored processions of parishioners dressed as saints, angels and devils would parade around and stop at the edge of the civilized area. This bit of church trickery resembled the ancient pagan custom of escorting or driving unwanted ghosts to the town limits. It served the new church by giving an acceptable Christian basis to the custom of dressing up on Halloween. The celebratory bonfires were also repurposed by the church as another way to ward off the devil. The name of All Hallows’ Eve for the night of Oct. 31 was slowly transitioned into the name Hallowe’en and then Halloween, which it’s still known as today.
In what should have been a winning strategy over time, the church appeared to gain the upper hand with the ancient pagans. Yet, inside the church there were still those who disagreed with using a holiday with such an abhorrent background as a way to worship their god. Bible scholars can identify verses which prohibit exactly what took place. The church wanted to stamp out evil and replace it with good, but this particular change still allowed the old practices to exist. Even today, the facts still remain about Samhain and there are even people reverting to the old pagan ways. Good Christians send there children out dressed as ghosts, ghouls, and other supernatural creatures each Halloween thinking it’s nothing more than a fun event to get candy. But what they are really doing is supporting the fact that no matter how hard the overbearing Christian church tried, they failed to eradicate the old ways and those who support them. Seems as if the Wheel of the Year is very relevant as an example; all things eventually come full circle and return to the place they originated.