My journey exploring Wicca and Paganism began sometime at the beginning of last year. The snow was still on the ground and I was in emotional turmoil. I began checking out every book I could on the subject out of pure curiosity to distract myself and ended up partaking in celebrating some of the Sabbats (although not very well planned out and I hope to get better as time goes on.) I still celebrate Christian holiday’s but I honor the Sabbats as well. As many of you know, Samhain is coming up quickly and some consider this to be the most important Sabbat. It was actually in reading about Yule and Samhain that opened my curiosity to the Pagan way of life. These were holiday’s that were honored and celebrated well before Christianity was an organized religion. Christian’s took dates very near if not exactly the same as Pagan holidays and spun them in their favor. There is a stigma and belief that these Pagan holidays are associated with the Devil and evil. Those of us who are aware of the history can find some humor in that notion because it is completely the opposite. For that, I wanted to do a piece on the history of Samhain and how it has evolved into modern day Halloween.
THE HISTORY OF SAMHAIN
Samhain, pronounced Sow-en has been dated back more than 2,000 years to the ancient Celtics. It has been a misconception for some time that Samhain started as celebration of the God of the Dead, however Samhain translates to “summer’s end”. They believed this was the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. Samhain Eve began at sunset of October 31st and November 1st began the new year and start of winter. This is because the Celtics followed a lunar calendar. Historically the celebration commenced on October 31st and carried into November 1st.
HOW THEY CELEBRATED
At dusk on October 31st local villages began the formal ceremonies to celebrate Samhain, which usually commenced with lighting a large bonfire. These fires were considered sacred and were given sacrifice in the form of crops and animals to give thanks for the previous years crops and herds. These were also considered cleansing fires. To burn the old and make way for the new. The celebration continued with costumes and dancing around the fire. There were three main reasons that the ancient Celts wore costumes during their Samhain rituals:
- To honor the dead who were permitted to rise from the other world and be reincarnated or set free.
- Hide from malevolent spirits and escape being tricked by them
- To honor the Celtic Gods and Goddesses
Many times they did divination of a sort. The methods used in ancient times vary much from today. They would read tea leaves, rocks, or twigs. Some believe the first tarot cards were crafted during this era around Samhain. There is no evidence to support this but it is a legend that has passed down through the years.
After the celebration was finished the villagers would take clubs to catch on fire from the sacred bonfire and bring it back to their homes to light their hearths. They kept the same fire burning for months throughout the winter. Then they would place food and drink on their door steps to appease mischievous spirits who might try to play tricks on members of the household.
SAMHAIN BECOMES HALLOWEEN
Christianity cropped up in 800 AD and with it the Church in England tried to bring Christianity into old Celtic festivals and rituals, Samhain being one of them (check the similarity between other Pagan Holidays such as Ostara and Easter, etc.). Pope Boniface IV claimed October 31st as “All Hallow’s Eve” and November 1st as “All Saints Day”. This is when the evolution of Halloween begins. The rituals varied but many are similar to how we celebrate the commercialized version of Halloween and they began at this time. Peasants would attend the festivals in the streets on Samhain and beg for food in return they would pray for the giver’s family to be free of trickery from the spirits. Families passed out “soul cakes” to the poor in return for these prayers. The church encouraged passing out soul cakes rather than leaving food out for the spirits as was done in earlier times.
The costume aspect of Halloween comes from the original Celtic practice of dressing up. People believed that the veil between the other world and our world became thin enough for spirits and ghosts to walk among us. Costumes were used to confuse spirits as to who was a mortal and who was a ghost. They believed it prevented them from trickery. In much later years after English Settlers carried different aspects of different parts of Samhain to America, the costume tradition stuck and eventually became a commercialized part of the holiday. The commercialization of it really began in the late 1800’s. Communities decided to start throwing parties and festivals that were appropriate for children and adults. It was encouraged to remove any sort of grotesque context from the festivities and rather focus on games and food. Between 1920 and 1950 the centuries old practice of “trick or treating” came back to life. Similar to beggars asking for soul cakes, children dressed up in costumes and asked for treats.
By the time the 1990s arrived American’s were spending upward of $6.9 billion on the holiday on candy, decor, and pumpkin patches.
SAMHAIN TRADITIONS WE STILL FOLLOW
- Black and orange is the color scheme. We associate these colors instantly with Halloween but they were originally much more important a part of Samhain and the Sabbats. Black represents the time of darkness after the death of the God. The waning light of October is represented by Orange and shows Yule is on the way.
- Jack-O-Lanters. The ancients that celebrated Samhain used to light candles and put them in hollowed out Gourds for the dead to follow the light as they walked the earth on Samhain.
- Tricks or Treats. It would now be frowned upon to give children or beggars home baked treats on Halloween but the idea originated with them as well as placing food outside the door to protect one from trickery.
- Costumes. Although much more commercialized and more geared towards children, there is no doubt that dressing up in robes and costumes on October 31st began more than 2000 years ago.
So there you have it. A brief but thorough explanation of how Halloween came to be. Today we celebrate it with trick or treating and watching slasher movies, but Pagans still honor it as a sacred holiday. Do I believe the veil thins on October 31st and our dead walk the earth? Not necessarily. But I do believe it’s a good time to focus on ancestral history, the turning of seasons, and honoring those who have died. That is for another blog. Coming up on the 2nd part Samhain blog series: altars, rituals, foods, and what modern day pagans really do on Halloween!