The Truth About Halloween

Halloween originally was the Celtic celebration Samhain, which was also their word for the time of year that falls on our calendar during October and November. The name literally meant the end of summer and marked the New Year for the ancient Celts. It was not a time of goblins and witches, but it was the onset of the dark and cold part of the year, the complete opposite of Beltane, which signified the onset of light and warm days.

Ancient Celts  were farmers (without machinery) and it is hard for us urbanites to imagine the joy and elation that would follow a successful harvest. Families gathered to complete the chores in preparation of winter. Herders brought sheep and cattle from hillside pastures to sheltered stables for protection from winter storms. Animals were slaughtered, meat salted, peat and wood piled high, crops harvested and safely stored. It was a busy but joyous time that included feasting and tale telling.  

An interesting aspect of the holiday was the belief that on Samhain Eve the barriers that separated the three planes of existence were temporarily removed so that the souls of the unborn, the dead, and living were free to walk the earth together. Celts believed in the immortal soul long before Christianity advanced across Europe. Bon fires or hearth fires burned all night and folk left out small gifts of food and drink for wandering souls to enjoy. Perhaps giving out candy to wandering children is a vestige of this practice. It was not a scary or threatening holiday. The dead held no special terrors for Celts.

Ironically, the mood of Samhain did not change to a dark, scary, evil night until it became Christianized. As Christianity spread, Samhain was renamed to Halloween or Hallows Eve and was made part of All Souls’ Day. Common people, hanging on to old traditions, would drink wine, bake oatcakes, and fill their homes with candle light. They would also visit graves and pray for loved ones until these folk traditions were deemed witchcraft by the church. Even All Souls’ Day was outlawed by the church until the modern era. During this period of suppression, our current dark version of Halloween emerged with evil witches, scary goblins, and ghosts, celebrated for fun at parties outside the church.

This Halloween I'll think about lighting a bon fire or leaving a cookie out on your doorstep for a loved one that has passed on. My days of spray painting fences and garbage cans are over. 

 John King, “The Celtic Druids’ Year”, UK, Blandford Publishig, 1994.
 Mara Freeman, “Kindling the Celtic Spirit”,NY, Haper Collins, 200

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