The origins of Halloween or All Hallows Eve are old. So old that I think most of us have no idea why we do what we do on the day. Of course one could Wikipedia the origins and quickly come up with a great deal of answers.
But I thought I would stick to some scholarly writers to gather the information on the day that kids anticipate and parents prepare knowing that the best thing to come out of the experience is a parent tax and an extended kids snacks for schools we no longer have to put out for a month.
The Pagan Roots
Halloween most people know is a pagan holiday in origin which much like the Solstice was co-opted by the early Christians to change the focus away from the pagan rituals and to make it more Christian centred. The origins are Celtic. We mostly know this from Gaulic Celtic sources1.
In Celtic worship November 1st was the New Year for them, it was called Samhain. The Celts viewed the day as starting at sun down, so thus the New Year started on what would be October 31st for our understanding. Geo Athena Trevarthen explains that there was good religious reason for this:
Why should the year begin in darkness? In The Conquest of Gaul Caesar said Celtic Gauls claimed descent from Father Dis, a god of death, darkness and the underworld. Consequently, each day began at night. The year begins with darkness because all things do; just as the baby forms in the mother’s womb, the new day begins in midnight’s darkness.
So an interesting understanding comes from this, the Celtic idea for the new year is not spring, when things are new in nature, or at the winter solstice where day begins to return again rather it came from another origin. They saw darkness as the origin of life, so thus it was something to celebrate. For us who live in an age where darkness is conceived as something to be frightened of this is likely a strange concept. Anyone who has lived, especially in Wales, during a winter of cold, wet, and dark, would understand why this was seen as such a significant event.
A major reason for this day in Celtic myth was a celebration of death and life, death from the loss of those who will not survive the cold winter months and for the conception of new life which, lets be honest here, was one thing that would be common in months after the harvest and most of the hard work was done. Sitting by the fire only gets you so far at the end of the day.
Another Celtic portion to the modern version of the day was the release of chaos during the darkness of that period. In later folklore this idea was personified in a letting loose of youth. Perceived by some as a way to keep reign on them the rest of the year. In Scotland and Ireland this meant teens and children would play practical jokes and some not so harmless tricks on others in the community.
As Jack Santino says, “All Hallows Eve, alias Hallow Even, alias Hallowe’en is an ancient Celtic pre-Christian New Year’s day in modern dress.”2 Read the rest of this entry »