Celtic Origins of Halloween
Samhain, Samhain, you live within eternal nomad souls akin
To fallen leaves, bewailing winds, when autumn plays her violin
So mournfully… When Sun goes down and you don’t hear a living sound –
Dear Mother Nature is asleep albeit tonight her head is crowned.
This night transcends the visual world. Oh, don’t you hear those elvish chimes?
Your Celtic ancestors are here, they’ll also disappear betimes,
So hasten, lit your candles now, and greet them with the sacraments,
Remain disguised for evil ones. That is the time when summer ends.
The ancient roots have grown so deep, but if you have a mystic gift
You’ll see the light inside the dark. You’ll find the gems that were adrift.
The end of the harvest season. The end of summer – as ancient Celts would say. This time of the year inspires me, so I usually write poems about it. This is a special night when all the spirits, good and evil ones, are awake. The main transcendental passage between the two worlds – of the living and of the dead – is open wide and especially strong in the early hours of November 1. Are you surprised that I don’t call this sacred holiday Halloween? Indeed, it has another name from time-worn druidic realms, which is Samhain, a holiday that is more than 2000 years old. It was widely celebrated in the lands that now belong to Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, Bretagne (northern France), and the Isle of Man. Contemporary pagans also celebrate it, sometimes calling it “New Year of the witches”. In my opinion, making it merely a witch holiday extremely narrows its profound meaning. However, its magic strength cannot be overestimated. This is truly the most enchanting feast of the year that reveals incredible knowledge and secrets to those who are able to go beyond the ordinary.
Etymology. You’ll be also surprised to know how to pronounce it. I won’t immerse in an abundance of Gaelic dialects, having chosen one of the widespread suggestions "sow-een". According to McBain's Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, this word means summer’s end. The ancient Celts divided the year into two seasons – summer and winter. Once my acquaintance called it a primitive thinking of pagans, but I don’t see how having two major seasons influences imagination. Oh, Celts were truly imaginative and creative, and their ritual holidays easily prove it.
When the warm season comes to its firm end, it means that the 1st of November is Celtic New Year. However, the celebration is much more sacramental and clandestine than the usual New Year night we all got used to. This is the Ancestor Night, the mysterious time that unites the entire generations. What is interesting, the Celtic day commenced and ended at sunset, that’s why Samhain started in the evening of 31 October and ended in the evening of the 1st November.
The otherworldly door is open, allowing omnifarious apparitions to find the way to the world of alive humans. Among the ghosts, there are your ancestors as well as relatives who recently passed away, but not only them. Even the greatest energy of light cannot hold the transcendent gate from evil spirits because Samhain allows every blessed and cursed soul to wander throughout Earth. Other particular creatures, which could be both good and evil, were faeries – magic guardians of nature. They usually didn’t harm people, but they were mischievous sometimes if a human being annoyed them or accidentally offended their whimsically unpredictable feelings. Pucas were one of the most malicious faeries – they were able to transform into anyone and anything. According to folk tales, there was an abundance of pucas in the old times. They were sharp-witted and malevolent, and oftentimes took the form of wild horses. Their special malefice was to puzzle and harm lost wanderers. That’s why wise old people warned inexperienced fellows, saying that only a fool will decide to travel or at least go into the woods on Samhain night. The smartest ones didn’t ramble at night but also found ways to mollify ill-mannered faeries: they left some corn in their gardens or other holiday treats. If the supernatural being found this little gift, it would reward a person somehow: for instance, people believed that lush spring flowers or nice fruits were signs that pucas were pleased on Samhain.
Besides flattering faeries and warding off demons, every family had to create an altar to honor the deceased. The living relatives waited for their ancestors to visit their homes, so they had to make sure those family ghosts are welcomed well. The offerings consisted of fruits, vegetables, and all sorts of delicious food: people believed that it will help the ancestors bless them with many good years ahead. Nevertheless, the ritual was successful only when the family guided the dead home because the “breathing world” became unusual for them and they couldn’t recognize many things around them. The spirits could simply wander around, searching for their former houses. That is why the ensuing tradition emerged: the relatives opened a western window or a door and left a lit up candle there. It was also no less important to sing ritual songs and practice customary spiral dances (women usually did it). The weaver’s dance, as they also called it, symbolizes life in circles and the consequent rebirth of human souls. The adherents of “Outlander”, does it remind you of something? Indeed, that’s how your favorite historical time travel drama starts: with women dancing around Craigh na Dun stones.
Now I’d like to ask you: how did Celts guard themselves against wicked ghouls? You know the answer, don’t you? The adherents of two seasons were imaginative enough to invent the strangest costumes and masks to make grim phantoms perceive those “demonic incarnations” as one of them or even more dangerous kind, so they didn't touch people in disguise. The creators of Halloween appropriated the same tradition, which became “canonized” in pop culture. The main difference is that the majority of modern people who dress up like vampires and mummies never bother to ponder on symbolic meanings of such a masquerade. Nowadays, you joyfully exclaim “Trick or treat!” while in the ancient times, this custom was called souling – people were given treats and hand-made presents in exchange for soulful invocations.
Fire that Purifies. The early men suffered from the deficiency of sun even more than modern people do. The Sun was their main God and when this deity was dormant most of the time, people worshipped Fire. One of the most eloquent Samhain’s symbols was hidden in the lighting of bonfires – this way, our ancestors escorted the feeble luminary throughout the hiemal skies. They believed that all the fire they had on Earth are parts of the sun, so its sacramental value was apparent. The enormous bright bonfires were usually constructed and ignited by druids – revered priests and priestesses. It was thought that specters also felt the warmth of sacred fires and crowded around them during the night. It explains why people didn’t extinguish those flames even when they went to bed.
Many Faces of Jack-O-Lantern. Before I visit the British Isles to carry out my own investigation about the origins of the pumpkin-lantern we all love, I can assume that the main folk story about Stingy Jack was formed in Christian times. Though earlier versions of Jack O’Lantern seem to be terrifying, especially when made out of turnips and beetroots, it’s likely that Celts also used pumpkins as gourds are considered to be ancient plants that were carved thousands of years ago.
Samhain was the quintessential, transformational festival for the Gaels. They wrote long manuscripts about it, describing the rituals and sharing their cherished legends. Time stopped when Samhain unlocked its translunary gate: something cosmic happened then and aren’t that happening now? Its spellbound night belongs neither to the passing year nor to the coming one, it amalgamates darkness with light, it connects the living with the dead.
If your mind is curious, you will remember – if there was no Samhain, Halloween would never occur. Rejoice!