Once a year on the 31st of October, Christian and Pagan festivities intertwine as we don our pointy hats and set off in search of sweet treats. The traditions of this hallowed day date back over 2000 years, and we largely have the Celts to thank for it.
The Gaelic festival of Samhain (confusingly pronounced ‘SAH-win’ and the Gaelic word for ‘November’ or’ ‘summer’s end’) traditionally takes place between October 31st and November 1st, spanning one full Celtic day which began and ended with the sunset. Since ancient times, this event marked the end of the harvest and the start of the darker winter months, as well as the Celtic New Year. Unfortunately for the cattle grazing obliviously on the last of their summer pastures, this also meant it was time for the chop in preparation for food supplies. During this time, it was believed that the veil between the underworld and that of our own was lifted, allowing spirits to freely cross over. As a result, people lit bonfires for their protective and cleansing powers, often using the fire as part of their divination rituals. To confuse the aos sí or ‘souls of the dead’, people would imitate them by donning masks and costumes (historically animal heads and skins). It was believed that impersonating the aos sí would protect oneself from them – a risky move that probably wouldn’t go down very well with real-life altercations.
Unsurprisingly, the Church soon christianised this festival. Some argue that the 1st November was chosen for All Hallows’ Day (also known as All Saints’ Day or Feast of all Saints) to coincide or replace Samhain due to Celtic influence, while others suggest this was in fact a Germanic idea.
Trick or treat!
Trick or treating, or ‘souling’, became a tradition as far back as the 11th century, when it was the Catholic belief that the dead would return for 2 days. Candles were strategically placed to guide them home, fires were lit to warm their chilled bones, and food was left out as offerings. Bands of young beggars would bounce from house to house singing ‘souling rhymes’ (a precursor to today’s carolling) and were given ‘soul cakes’ as alms. This practice is alive and well with children in the Phillipines, and goes by the name Pangangaluluwa. This snippet from a sermon dated around 1380 explains the interaction: “… wherefore in olden time good men and women would this day buy bread and deal [give] it for the souls that they loved, hoping with each loaf to get a soul out of purgatory.” So essentially, give a kid a cake and some poor soul will be redeemed from the fiery depths of hell. Neat!
Bobbing for apples
A favourite game with dubious hygiene. When the Romans plundered Britain, Celtic traditions merged with their own. The apple is a potent symbol of the Roman goddess Pomona, keeper of orchards and fruit trees, which points to why the apple was used during these festivities. The apple has been considered a magical fruit throughout history. It gave Snow White a fright, formed part of Merlin’s staff, and let’s not forget the downfall of mankind. Used as part of love divination, it was believed that if you managed to chomp down on an apple, carefully peel it and swing it round your head ‘sunwise’ and throw it o’er your left shoulder, the peel would form the initial of your true love.
Nothing screams ‘Halloween’ more than an evil… Irish… turnip? Before the big orange vegetable king ruled, (no, not Trump), the turnip took precedence on this special day. In fact, pumpkin lanterns didn’t come on the scene until around 1866. Whatever the vegetable, the idea was that by using one to house a candle, it would ward off wandering spirits, and ‘Stingy Jack’. As legend goes, Jack of the Lantern convinced the devil to shapeshift into a coin in order to pay for his drink. After deciding he’d rather use the coin for other purposes, Jack kept the coin in his pocket alongside a crucifix to keep the Devil in coin-form, only agreeing to release him on the grounds that his soul wouldn’t be taken to hell once he died. As it goes, when Jack eventually kicked the bucket, God was suitably unimpressed and refused him entry to Heaven, and the Devil stuck by his end of the bargain, leaving Jack to wander purgatory with nothing but a flame in a carved turnip to light his way – and thus the Jack O’Lantern was born.
On Nos Galan Gaeaf, the day before the first day of winter in Wales also known as ‘Spirit Night’, people would actively avoid churchyards, stiles and crossroads as these are well-known hangout spots for spirits, naturally. One of the traditions known as Coelcerth saw everyone placing a stone with their name on it around a fire. The next day, people would frantically try to locate their stone; if it was missing, it was believed they would die within a year. I’d rather have a go at bobbing for apples personally… As if this wasn’t terrifying enough, on this day, the Welsh shared tales of the spirit Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta who would take the form of a tail-less black sow and terrorise the countryside with his headless ladyghost pal. To ward them off, people would shout: “Adref, adref am y cynta’, Hwch Ddu Gwta a gipio’r ola!’” (Home, home, let each try to be first and may the tail-less black sow take the hindmost.)
Things are done a little differently in the Czech Republic. All Souls’ Day takes place on November 2nd and officially goes by the name Památka zesnulých (a remembrance of those who have passed), but more commonly by Dušičky (little souls). This is a day to visit the graves of loved ones, decorating them with flowers, wreaths and candles and arranging chairs around the fireplace – one for each family member, present and departed.
El Día de los Muertos
Halloween is known as El Día de los Muertos in many Latin American countries. In Mexico, this is stretched out across three days, commencing on the 31st October and culminating on the 2nd November. Rather than a sombre occasion, this is one that’s celebrated with brightly coloured garb, music and feasting. Families set up altars within their homes which contain offerings of food, drink, flowers and sweets for the deceased. Interestingly, this is the time when the monarch butterflies return in their millions during their migration to the highland forests. A mixture of timing and superstition led locals to believe they were in fact their departed loved-one’s souls. The butterfly represents the cyclical nature of life; as they return every year at this time, so do the souls of the dead.