Celtic Junction Arts Review

A Brief History of Halloween

Jacqueline Hesse

Many of us have cherished memories of eating dinner and then donning a mask and costume as darkness settled. We’d tramp from door-to-door throughout the neighborhood with an old pillowcase or paper bag. We’d pass Frankenstein, Dracula, ghosts and witches. We’d recognize a friend who was now a hobo, a princess, a firefighter or cowboy. We’d step up on each lighted stoop, press the doorbell and shout “trick or treat” as the door opened. An hour or two later we’d make our way home; chilled, exhausted, but thrilled with our hoard of candy of every imaginable type.

Halloween house with trick or treaters
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

We accepted Halloween, never questioned its origins or why we did what we did. Halloween felt as old as the trees, the moon and the hooting owl.

Photo by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash

Today’s western celebration is actually a mosaic or patchwork of Greek, Roman, Catholic and Pagan holidays. As far as we can trace, Halloween began well over a thousand years ago with the druids. The Celtic festival Samhain, (pronounced sow-in) was a three-day festival that marked summer’s end; the literal translation of Samhain.

It was believed that the last day of October, the midpoint between the fall and winter equinoxes, marked the night when the “veil between the worlds” was at its thinnest. The veil in the form of a mystical fog rendered fairies and spirits invisible. But as the seasons shifted, the fog lifted and the elves, sprites, fairies and other mythical creatures became visible as they roamed the land, woods and darkened village paths. One took care not to travel alone for fear of meeting a Dullahan, a headless man on horseback who carried his own head. Sound familiar?

Photo by Ivan Stern on Unsplash

The Celts of the Middle Ages built large protective Samhain bonfires. Druid priests led a ceremony where a sacrifice was made and families offered a small portion of their harvest and milk to the Sidhe or fairies. A thousand year ago, on this sacred, scary night, Celtic villagers confronted their own mortality, remembered those who’d come before them, and opened their cottage windows and doors, to welcome the spirits of their ancestors into their home.

We know of these Celtic rituals because historians of old wrote about them: Strabo of Amasia, Diodorus of Sicily, Julius Caesar, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder all recorded the details of the festival.

An 18th-century illustration of a wicker man. Engraving from A Tour in Wales written by Thomas Pennant.

Julius Caesar and Diodorus told of a stories-tall wicker man that was filled with men and then lit on fire, a sacrifice to appease the gods. However, the veracity of this account may be occluded because at the time the Romans were at war with the Celts.

Thus, these reports may be embellished and be little more than propaganda aimed at creating an idea of savageness and strangeness in the Celts to reinforce the Roman military efforts against them. While the discovery of pits of bones in the sanctuary floor at Tara in County Meath, suggests that there were deaths, these are possibly the skulls of the vanquished enemy. 

There is well-documented evidence that the celebration of Samhain did involve animal sacrifice, but this may have been a seasonal slaughter to thin the herd and prepare for the coming winter. To date, the human sacrifice part of Samhain has never been verified and no historical accounts validate it.

Pope Gregory IV, green robe

In the fifth century, as the Romans took over Gaul and Britannia, Christianity became the dominant and state-supported religion. Samhain was co-opted and merged with established Roman traditions, namely the Roman Feast of Pomona (the goddess of seeds and fruit) and Parentalia, the festival of the dead. Over the centuries the focus of October 31 shifted from remembering ancestors and inviting them into the family home to praying for the souls stuck in purgatory.

Halloween was not always celebrated on October 31. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV moved Halloween to May 13 possibly in an attempt to merge it with the May 1 pagan festival of Beltane. Beltane was celebrated on the same day as the German Walpurgis Nacht- the night the witches flew to convene on Brocken Mountain in the Harz range in northern Germany.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory IV moved Halloween back to October 31, the day before All Saint’s Day on November 1 and two days before All Souls Day on November 2. The night was a sacred night, a “hallowed evening” and then shortened to Hallowe’en.

Photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash

Early Christians in Britannia gave out “soul cakes” to the poor in exchange for a song, rhyme or prayer for their dead loved ones. Modern day trick or treating may have evolved from this informal tradition.

Halloween masks are an ancient tradition, but the parade and party atmosphere most likely evolved from Guy Fawkes Day. This day memorializes Nov. 5, 1605, when Fawkes’s plan to blow up Parliament was foiled. Rowdy revelers wore masks or disguises, carried a scarecrow-effigy of Fawkes, paraded it through the streets, marched to a bonfire and threw the scarecrow in.

But Halloween was not an accepted idea in colonial U.S. The Puritans, including Harvard founder Increase Mather and later his adult son Cotton Mather, publicly eschewed the holiday. 

Vintage card from the late 1800s

This changed with the mass of Irish immigrants to the U.S. in the 1800s. They brought Samhain-cum-Halloween with them. As they rose in population and in political power the holiday became more recognized and more readily accepted and celebrated. Halloween mask wearing grew in popularity throughout the 1800s, evinced by 1870s Halloween mask newspaper ads.

The theme of Halloween has not always been about a good scare, either.  In the late 1700s early 1800s the holiday’s focus was courtship; Scotsman Robert Burns’ famous 1785 poem “Halloween” was not about souls trapped in purgatory but about divining one’s romantic future.

On Halloween night throughout the 1800s, love-struck teens would throw two nuts into the fire. Each nut represented a possible love interest. The nut that did not burst was the one who would be true. A girl might peel an apple and drop the peel to divine the first letter of her future spouse.

The sacred, eerie and magical nature of the holiday continued to entail prophetic elements. It was said that one could look into a mirror at midnight on Halloween to divine one’s future, as a 1900 political cartoon of William Jennings Bryan depicted him doing.

The Irish, many who had immigrated to the U.S., switched from putting a candle inside a turnip to illuminating the easier-to-carve and ubiquitous pumpkin. The face carved into the gourd was that of Stingy Jack; the ubiquitous “Jack” of many Irish tales who, time after time, outsmarts the devil. This is today’s jack-o-lantern.

Photo by Ksenia Yakovleva on Unsplash

Will Halloween always be Halloween as we know it? It’s likely that the Halloween 100 years from now will be very different from the Halloween of today. Of course, only time will tell.