By Susan Grigsby / Daily Kos
Of the differing schools of thought on the origins of Halloween, I prefer the one that roots it in ancient Celtic tradition. And since no one seems to know for sure, why not? According to the American Folklife Center, Halloween originated with the ancient pre-Christian Celtic celebration of Samhain.
The festival observed at this time was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honor of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all manner of beings were abroad: ghosts, fairies, and demons–all part of the dark and dread.
As the Catholic Church moved into the British Isles, the Celtic New Year holiday was pre-empted to honor All Saints and Martyrs (the Hallowed), especially those who did not have a specific date set aside for them. Since the Celtic festival continued unabated, the Church then introduced All Souls day wherein prayers for the dead were said on the following day, November 2.
People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil. The folk continued to propitiate those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe’en–an ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year’s Day in contemporary dress.
Because the Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living during Samhain, any Celt forced to be abroad at night would wear a mask, hoping to convince any returning soul that he was one of them and thereby avoid their attention.
From that came our modern tradition of costumes on Halloween, originally representing such characters as ghosts and skeletons, and then witches, demons, and Satan. Today they might be superheroes, but in the old days they tended to be more like the wandering spirits that were present on Samhain.
It was believed that those who had died could return to their homes for that one night, and often an extra plate was set at the evening meal to accommodate a loved one who had passed away. Candles were placed outside of houses and in the streets to help other spirits on their journeys. Homeowners would also provide food and wine for the restless souls, hoping that leaving the repast on the doorstep would discourage the spirits from entering the house. This practice was eventually replaced, with the Church’s encouragement, with the homeowner leaving small cakes known as soul cakes. This led to the tradition of living people, usually children, going “a’ souling” begging door to door for the soul cakes. The cakes were given in exchange for the recipient’s prayers for the dead family members of the giver.
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.
It is believed this may be the origin of the American tradition of trick-or-treating.
Trick or Treat
My husband and his contemporaries used to talk about the Halloween of his youth. There were no treats in the 30s and 40s, only tricks. No actual cow-tipping, although attempts may have been made. It is quite a bit harder to tip a cow than one might think, as cows can move, and are unlikely to stand still for being tipped over by adolescent boys. Outhouses, on the other hand, were stable and ripe for the tipping. And there were pumpkin patches ripe for the picking.
In my youth, during the 50s and 60s in the suburbs of Chicago, it was the one night of the year that we were allowed to run free of adult supervision after dark. Often tapped with the care of my younger sister, I had to rely on the boys to let us know which house had the candy apples and popcorn balls and who was handing out the unshelled walnuts or dinner mints. The tricks of that era involved bars of soap and windows. Candy corn came twisted in waxed paper and sometimes there would be a couple of nickels or dimes mixed in with the root beer barrels and other sweets at the bottom of the trick-or-treat bag.
According to The Atlantic, it wasn’t until the 1970s that commercial candy became the treat of choice. Convenient and cheap, it was much easier than baking cookies or making caramel apples to give to the neighborhood children. And commercially wrapped candies were much less likely to be tampered with, reassuring parents who bought into the urban myth of poisoned treats.
Wherever you turn this October, candy beckons. Americans will spend an estimated $2 billion on candy during the Halloween season this year, and here’s a fun fact from the California Milk Processors Board: “an average Jack-O-Lantern bucket carries about 250 pieces of candy amounting about 9,000 calories and about three pounds of sugar.”
Bobbing for Apples, Divining the Future
During the pre-Christian Samhain celebration, it was thought that the same thinness of the barrier between the living and the dead enabled the Druids, the philosopher/priests of the Celts, to divine the future. And until recently, divination was part of the Halloween tradition.
For some reason, which I have been unable to determine, it seems that most attempts to divine the future involved learning which young man a young woman might marry.
In Scotland, a young woman would attempt to peel an apple in a single unbroken strip, toss it over her shoulder and hope that it would spell the initials of her future husband.
A 1904 Halloween greeting card memorialized the tradition of a young woman looking into a mirror in a darkened room in hopes of catching a glimpse of her future husband. There was a belief that the first one able to bob an apple from a bowl of water would marry in the coming year, although I wouldn’t share that with the 9-year-old who is only trying to capture a floating apple with his teeth.
Irish legend has it that Stingy Jack was a blacksmith, a prankster, and a drunk with the gift of the gab. One night in a pub, he fell into conversation with the Devil, who was out and about looking to harvest souls. Somehow Stingy Jack managed to convince the Devil to turn into a silver coin to pay for their drinks. But once the Devil had done so, Stingy Jack instead placed the coin into his pocket—which also held a cross.
Now, everyone knows that a cross will completely disarm the Devil, and Stingy Jack carried the coin quite a while before finally releasing the Devil with a promise that the Devil would not take Stingy Jack for another year. At the end of the year, the Devil came looking for Stingy Jack who appeared to be ready to go, but first asked the Devil to climb into an apple tree and bring him an apple for his last earthly meal. As soon as the Devil climbed the tree, Stingy Jack surrounded the trunk with crosses, once again capturing the Devil.
In exchange for a promise that the Devil would not take Jack’s soul after his death, Stingy Jack removed the crosses and freed the Devil. Knowing that no matter how he behaved, Stingy Jack was not going to hell, he continued his miserly drinking and pranking until he died. St. Peter would not allow the drunkard to pass through the Pearly Gates into heaven, so Stingy Jack appealed to the Devil for admittance to hell. The Devil honored his bargain by refusing, but tossed Jack an ember from the depths of hell to light him on his way.
Stingy Jack found a turnip, carved out the center, and placed the ember in it to light his way between heaven and hell, where he was destined to spend eternity. The Irish called this ghostly being Jack of the Lantern, or Jack O’Lantern.
When the Irish came to America in the middle of the 19th century, they brought their Halloween traditions with them, including the carving of a turnip to hold a candle to ward off the ghost of Stingy Jack. But to their delight they found pumpkins growing in America, which were already hollow and perfectly formed to carve into a jack-o’-lantern.