Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, has an interesting history. All Hallows’ Day is All Saints” Day (hallowed meaning holy) and is now November 1st. Why it was moved from its original May 13th date is lost in antiquity. Perhaps it was to “baptize” a pagan holiday, the Celtic new year. Perhaps not. That is not a matter for this post. I want to deal with what traditions from Samhain were carried into Halloween.
First, there’s the whole idea of ghosts, witches and goblins. On Samhain, the Celts thought that the fabric between the Otherworld and the human world was rent and those of the fairy kingdom and the dead could travel in the world of the living. When you read fairy, don’t think Tinkerbell. For example, the kelpie was a shapeshifter that assumed the form of a beautiful black horse that would lure some poor soul, often a child, to climb on its back. Then it would plunge into a river, lake or sea and drown its rider before devouring him or her. Not exactly Peter Pan’s cutesy companion.
When you go into a Sidhe (fairy mound), you enter the world of the Tuatha D? Danann (tribe of the goddess Danu). These were gods who were defeated by the Celts (Milesians) and opted to take the Otherworld and leave this one to men. Okay, I could go on at length about all this mythology, but the important part is that the Celts felt that these powerful fairies were upset at the onset of the Celtic winter, which Samhain marked, and could be a bit dangerous if you encountered them. Samhain was one of four fire festivals Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh), marking the change of seasons. And this was the darkest one, because shorter days and harsher weather were to follow. Those roaming around on that night were not nice, but the angry ghost of those dead and defeated gods suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) who might drag you into the nearest Sidhe.
So what’s a Celt to do? Well, you might try to blend in. Before trick-or-treating and Halloween parties were around, the Gaelic lands (Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man) had people “guising,” or going around in costume on Halloween. Hiding your identity might save you from a bad fairy. Putting out a food offering to keep the fairies out of your house may have been the origin of modern-day jack-o-lanterns. However, they were carved turnips rather than pumpkins. Using a large orange squash started in America. When I was living on the Isle of Man, I attended a
Halloween party at the community center at the Braaid. There, turnips carved into weird faces by the kids were judged. Since I was the only person there who had no connection with any of the kids, I was appointed the judge. That was my first experience with carved turnips and it was hard not to laugh at some of the strange creations.
Halloween, or Samhain, parties are an old tradition, dating back to when the clan would gather together for a night of bonfires, eating and drinking. Places were set at the table where the dead were invited to sit, hoping to placate them. When you can’t be sure of surviving the night or of not encountering your dead father-in-law, getting blotto (or legless, as they say on the Isle of Man) is understandable. Obviously, that tradition has endured with some, but without the mythic justification.
So this Halloween, consider it also to be new year’s eve, Samhain. Light a fire in the fireplace, put your carved turnip or pumpkin on the doorstep and prepare for the modern ghosts, fairies and other strange creatures that will come to your door and demand food in payment for leaving you at peace. While these traditions have evolved, their origins lie deep in Celtic roots, so enjoy.? At least now you don’t have to worry about being dragged to the Otherworld by these night visitors. Happy Samhain.