All Hallows Eve – A History

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

The later folklore

Of course the other side to this celebration was the idea that the veil between the dead and the living was weaker in these dark days.  So that links to ancestors were built up.  Sometimes tables were set for the dead, other times it meant that they would picnic at ancestors graves or in general commemorate their dead relatives.   In a way it expanded the celebration even more into something significant and important.3

As the folklore of the day grew it also grew into new directions.  In Ireland and in some parts of the United States it was common to associate the day with marriage.  Be it finding a ring in some bread, or standing in front of a mirror wishing to see your mate, or even hiding corn meal in the bed for ghost to write on it the name of whom they are to marry.  In fact there are a number of myths and legends about ways to find your future spouse on Halloween.4

Also in Ireland there is a great deal of association of Halloween with sweets.  In older times this might be spiced apples or other treats.

As well of course the Christian community changed the association of the New Year with All Saints Day which celebrated the annual cleansing of the souls of mankind in spiritual purgatory and All Souls Day on November 2nd which commemorated the opening of purgatory, thus another reason for the dead to rise up to haunt the living as they closed in on their release.

Celts then looked at life and death differently and thus passed on to their ancestors in the British Ilse a view of death as another step in life.  Maybe this is why Christianity was able to spread wide in Roman Celts.

North American transmission

Meanwhile here in North America the arrival of Irish, Scots and Welsh to these new countries, particularly the Irish exodus after the potato famine saw a great expansion of traditions that were lost in puritan northern America.  With them came Christmas and Halloween.

With Halloween the traditions and myths changed once again, in part due to passage of time and the influx of non-Celtic influences.  The Origins of Jack-o-lantern is one of a blacksmith called Jack who is forced to wander the earth to evil for heaven and too tricky for hell, having got one over on the Devil.  He wanders the earth with his lantern made from a vegetable with coal in the middle.

Yet now the dead instead of those of older origin are now Princesses, Witches, Stormtroopers, and Transformers.  The older begging by the dead for food is now a jaunt around the neighbourhood for Candy, chips and in some cases soft drinks.  In many ways we have done to the day what we did to Christmas, turned into another way to express our capitalist nature through socialism.  Everyone spends money to spread the wealth to those with none, leaving the giver with none.  Combine that with the fascination with costumes and Hollywood getting into the act and it is a perfect synergy for the modern society we live in.

Back in Britain now the American Holiday

With all this British and Irish tradition it seems slightly strange how American this holiday is perceived even in the United Kingdom.  The modern version is said to have arrived with the GIs in the 1940s and over the years gained some popularity.  However, in my own experience it was not the Halloween I grew up with as many times those coming for treats were young teens and pre-teens without any decipherable costume and a expectation of a monetary reward over the more traditional types.

In the end the Celtic origins remain, in a way the day now is much more recognizable in the November 5 celebrations called Bonfire Night in the UK currently but more commonly known as Guy Fawkes Day.  Where the tradition of a bonfire combined with a effigy of Guy Fawkes join a celebration which appears much more pagan than the simple macabre celebration of the death of the leader of the gunpowder plot.    It is the only real “holiday” in Britain from August until Christmas.

Here in North America the celebration of Halloween carries with it much that is Celtic with modern twists but the heart of the celebration still exists.  For all the Church tried to do to defeat the celebration it carries on in the hearts and minds of Children in North America.

Happy Halloween!

1. Geo Athena Trevarthen, The Celtic Origins of Halloween Transcend Fear, Phi Kappa Phi Forum; Fall2010, Vol. 90 Issue 3, 6.

2. Jack Santino, Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances, Western Folklore
Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), 8.

3.  Helen Sewell Johnson, November Eve Beliefs and Customs in Irish Life and Literature, The Journal of American Folklore, American Folklore Society Vol. 81, No. 320 (Apr. – Jun., 1968), 134.

4. Johnson, 135.

5. Santino, 8.

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