Halloween’s Humble Beginnings

Well good Thursday my readers! Or should I say, blessed be and welcome. I realize it’s not Halloween yet and my bi-weekly postings don’t fall on the day or week of Halloween this year, however, I wanted to do something for the holiday. In a way, given the subject of this week’s post, I think it’s a good thing my post is a few days before Halloween. Or Samhain, as it is called in Celtic.

Before it was the common children’s holiday we now know (I’ll never grow up!), it was a festival. Pronounced Sa-win (not Sam-haen, like I used to pronounce it, haha), this festival originated from the Celts who inhabited what is now modern day Ireland, the UK, and northern France. Their new year was November first, which marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. I think this makes sense. The world, in many religions and myths, began in darkness. Winter, in many northern places, can have twenty-four hour darkness. Then, when the world was created, it was rivers and streams, and flora and fauna, that emerged. Think of the spring time. Then fruits and fire and people, civilization, and society. Think of the summer. I live near the ocean, so in the summer time I see a heck of a lot more people than I do the rest of the year. And lastly, their year ends with the fall. Things withering and fading. In Hesiod’s Theogony humanity was created and recreated dozens of times before it was gotten right. There was the golden, bronze, and iron ages. Then the age of heroes. But each of the previous ages had to end before another could begin. Such is the seasons. Even the span of human life, from womb to tomb (that’s a bad joke) follows the seasons. I think it makes perfect sense as to why the Celts would celebrate their New Year at the start of winter.

I’m sure you’ve heard dozens of times around Halloween –or, what used to be Samhain– that the veil between the living and the dead becomes blurred, allowing those that had passed to move into the realm of the living for the night. It was for this reason that people dressed up: to scare any negative spirits. But, Samhain was not a negative time. As a matter of fact, it was believed that during this time Druids, Celtic priests, would be able to predict the future.

Before the festivities began, the Celts would extinguish their hearth fires and don animal skins to greet their fellows by a sacred bonfire where sacrifices and fortunes were made. The animal skins were worn to ward off negative spirits, as were the jack o’ lanterns they carved, while family members that had passed were honored. When the festival was over, people would relight their hearth fires with logs from the sacred bonfire to protect themselves from the oncoming winter.

When the Romans conquered the majority of Celt territory in 43 AD, traditions intermingled. The Roman day of the dead, Feralia was celebrated at the end of October, as was the day of Pomona, the goddess of trees and fruit. Her symbol was the apple, which is why some believe bobbing for apples is common practice during Halloween.

Later, when the Romans adopted Catholicism, the Pope named November first as All Saint’s Day, to commemorate, you guessed it, the saints. November second was All Souls Day, to remember the dead. In ancient times, All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, however, no more sacrifices, fortunes, or animal skins were incorporated in the ceremony. Instead, a bonfire was lit and people dressed as saints, angels, or devils.

Modern Druids, Wiccans, and Witches still celebrate Samhain today, as do those who practice other pagan religions*.

Halloween, or Samahin, is associated with insight, the harvest, and the dead in these varying religions. Nowadays, many pagan religions don’t perform animal sacrifices at all, let alone in accordance with this holiday. Some Witches and Wiccans will create altars, however, with pumpkins and gourds, the colors of black, silver, white, orange and gold, and may light certain incense such as nutmeg or sage. If you notice, many of the things donning a Witch or Wiccan’s altar are things used in traditional Halloween decorations. And the fruits, vegetables, and herbs used are all found naturally growing around this time of year. Which is why these things are so sacred to the varying pagan religions, they follow the seasons; the cycle of life and death. Whereas others are just decorating.

So when you carve a pumpkin, you’re protecting your home. When you wear a costume, you’re protecting yourself. And should you be a Wiccan, Witch, Druid, or Pagan, you’re celebrating all that life has given you. Even if you’re not one of those things, you can still celebrate what the year has brought you. 🙂

Happy almost Samhain, Halloween, and New Year’s (or All-Hallows) Eve.

Thanks for reading,

-M

 

*I do want to note, that the terms Wiccan and Witch aren’t words interchangeably used as one (Wicca) is a religion and follows the Wiccan Rede, while the other (Witch) is a practice used and determined by the practitioner who does not follow or use the Rede.

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