The night is cold and blustery with a cutting wind banging against the old wooden door of a cottage, the weathered beams rattling on rusty hinges. Tall, barren trees stand stark and foreboding against a dark purple sky. Beyond the mud and thatch cottage, a dusty footpath angles down a steep rocky slope to the Irish Sea roiling and crashing against the deserted shore in angry protest. It is October 31st in the year 1 AD in the land of the Celts. Winter is looming and the days are becoming shorter and colder. Inside the cottage, a family huddles around a stone hearth and a blazing fire. The mother, a young, slender, red-headed woman, is stirring porridge in a large metal pot while the father is slicing pork in thick slabs for dinner and thinner slabs for tomorrow’s breakfast. He is tall and broad and his dark hair falls in his eyes after a long day in the wind. Two children, a boy and a girl ages 10 and 8, sit near the fire playing with their toys – simple dolls their mother has made from scraps of straw and cloth. Tomorrow is a big day – it is the festival of Samhain – and everyone is excited for what the day will bring. There are many chores to do before the next evening. The mother shoos the children off to their straw beds with promises of warm porridge and bacon in the morning.
The next day dawns bright and cold and the sea has calmed. It is November 1st, the first day of the new year and the official start of the winter season. The father rises and grabs a slice of bread with bacon and cold goat’s milk before heading outside and up the grassy hill to the pasture. He meets his neighbor at the pasture and they start counting and corralling the sheep that have been grazing on the land all summer. The men whistle and yell, driving the plump beasts down the hill towards the warm and waiting stables. By midday, all the sheep are settled in their wooden stalls with bales of hay for feasting. The men grab bowls of porridge at the house before walking down the dusty road into town to their landlord’s office. They need to pay the lease on their lands for another year of farming and sheep grazing. Next, they stop at a nearby pub for hot ale before heading home to their families.
Inside the homes, women and children talk excitedly. All day they have been preparing hot soups and meats, fruits and vegetables, for the night’s celebration. It is the festival of Samhain and the town has been buzzing in anticipation. Evening slowly descends and town folk gather for hearty dinners spread on low tables. An array of roasted meats, vegetables, potatoes, and soups send wafts of tantalizing aromas into the air. Everyone gathers around the table, sitting on thick bundles of straw. They dive excitedly into the feast, laughing and telling tales, both old and new. Some even break into tender songs of legend and lore – tales of loved ones lost in the mists of time and lovely maidens of the sea.
Soon, the men gather once more in town, then climb the nearby hillside to light bright yellow bonfires. The flames dance and swirl on the frosty air, sparking and jumping higher as more logs are added to the fire. Women and children don thick sweaters and colorful masks made of clay, cloth, leaves, and twine. They join the men on the hill, laughing and dancing and howling into the wind. They recite fables and sing songs, making as much noise as possible to scare away evil spirits. Tonight, all sorts of strange things roam the night: fairies and goblins, witches and demons. It is also the night that the ghosts of those who have passed come back to visit or those who have died during the year travel to the great beyond. Masks are worn to ward off any unwelcome apparitions. No one wants to be recognized by a witch or a hobgoblin – or followed home! People grab heavy wooden sticks and poke them into the bonfire, walking home with blazing torches to light their hearths for the long winter ahead.
Shortly thereafter, the local soothsayer – or fortune teller – comes to the family’s house for some hot drinks and food. Wrapped in a frayed shawl, the old woman settles her weary bones into a wooden seat next to the fire. Her wrinkled skin and white hair glow in the firelight. She closes her eyes and calls to the spirits. Sometimes she simply looks at some crushed tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. She is said to have the gift of divination – the ability to tell the future – who will marry, who will be healthy or ill, and who will depart in the months ahead. This year, the news is good. All in the home will enjoy good health and a bountiful harvest next fall. The old woman smiles and slowly shuffles out the door to visit the next home on this dark and chilly night. Samhain has been a special day full of family, food, and festivities.
A year or so later, the Romans invade this lovely Celt island and bring their own customs and traditions with them, such as the festival of Feralia. They hold celebrations to honor Pomona, the goddess of the harvest, as well as their departed loved ones. They make offerings at family graves in the form of wreaths, grain, salt, bread soaked in wine, and violets.
And so it goes. The years tick by and the customs continue. The dead are honored and feasts are held every November 1st. Then, in 7 AD, Pope Boniface IV decides it is time to throw away the old pagan traditions of roaming spirits and scary hobgoblins. He proclaims a new holiday, All Saints’ Day, to be held on May 13th to honor Catholic saints in heaven instead of magical fairies and devilish demons. But traditions and customs change slowly; they don’t happen overnight just because a ruler – or a pope – declares it so. Eventually, by the following century, the celebration of All Saint’s Day is moved to November 1st to try to merge it with the Celts’ holiday and hopefully take it over completely. It is then declared that the evening before this new All Saints’ Day, or October 31st, is a holy night to be known as “All Hallows Eve” or “Hallowed Eve” – which later becomes “Halloween.”
More years pass and by the Middle Ages the pagan – or non-religious – rituals and the saintly celebrations have merged. On “Hallowed Eve,” some people, such as those in Britain or of the Protestant faith, celebrate the harvest but do not acknowledge the saints. The Catholics honor the saints but deny the pagan beliefs in witches, ghosts, and goblins.
Thus, when the first pilgrims from England sailed to America in the 1600s and later the Irish in the 1800s, they brought their customs and beliefs with them, including Halloween. These early settlers didn’t celebrate the religious aspects of “Hallowed Eve,” such as honoring the saints, but rather celebrated the harvest and held feasts. Over the years, these Halloween traditions grew and evolved in America.
Today, many people still gather at this time of year every fall, but instead of lighting bonfires or enjoying big meals on the night of November 1st, they have incorporated new twists on old customs. In the United States and other places around the world, children still wear masks at night but they do it on October 31st, “Halloween,” instead of the Celts’ new year of November 1st. They carve pumpkins (instead of turnips like their ancestors) and bob for apples – maybe as a nod to the goddess Pomona and a bountiful fall harvest. They walk the streets and beg for candy, similar to their ancestors who allowed the poor to beg for food called “soul cakes.” Children now wear elaborate costumes instead of just masks and dress as things their ancestors tried to scare away – witches and goblins, ghosts and fairies. Some dress as skeletons, not realizing that this harkens back to the Celts centuries ago who would gather around blazing bonfires to send dearly departed loved ones on their way or welcome older ancestors home. Feasting today is mainly for children in the form of mounds of candy instead of fruits and vegetables. Some may play tricks on neighbors, acting as little “devils” or “demons” roaming the night just as their ancestors feared many centuries ago across the wild and raging sea.
So, what do you think of the Halloween holiday? Did you know about the old Celt traditions that started it all? What do you like to do on Halloween and what are your favorite costumes? Do you display witches, skeletons, and ghosts in your home or do you honor another tradition of your faith? If you enjoy feasting instead of scary celebrations, what is your favorite food to eat during Halloween?
I think it is amazing how customs follow us down through the centuries and change over the years as people travel to new places or grow in their beliefs.