All Hallows’ Even: From Samhain to Halloween

Halloween is the one festival with perhaps more ancient beginnings than any other holiday. Few of these origins are known commonly with the result that for many, Halloween has lost any serious meaning. A look at its origins might help us place this festival in perspective both in our hearts and in our calendars.

The celebration that was to become Halloween began with the Druids in Britain and Brittany, France. Two principal feast days for the Druids were the spring festival of Beltane on May 1st and the autumn festival of Sahain on November 1st. The night before Samhain, October 31st, was the most feared evening of the year. On this night beginning at midnight and lasting through the following day, celebrations were held to placate Samhain, the Lord of Death. During the night Samhain allowed the spirits of those who had died within the last 12 months to roam the earth. To frighten the evil spirits away, huge bonfires were lit on hilltops in honor of the sun god.

November 1st marked summer’s end and the beginning of a new year. In Ireland, new fires were kindled from fires which had been started by Druid priests rubbing pieces of oak together. The new fires in each hearth would last until next November 1st.

When the Romans conquered Britain, they added to the Druid feast of Samhain their own feast, honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruits and the feast of Februalia, the festival of the dead.  The month of February was later dedicated to this god. In 900, the Christians moved their celebration of All Saints from May to November 1st. This feast of all the holy ones (All Hallows) was preceded by All Hallows’ Even, later to be called Halloween. In the 10th century, the day after All Saints Day was designated as the Feast of All Souls, in which all the dead were remembered. Their close presence was felt at this time. But as many spirits good and bad shared this moment, the people were cautious. “On November Eve there is a bogy on every style” warned a Welsh proverb. For protection from evil spirits, some people carried sprigs of the magic rowan tree. Others kept salt and iron with them, two substances which frightened fairies and evil spirits. Masks kept the ghosts at bay and made it difficult for them to recognize the wearer.

Nuts and apples, tokens of the winter store of fruit were roasted on the great bonfires. Several days beforehand, young boys went around begging for material for the fires. Masked adults often visited homes begging for food. Sometimes the food was meant for the dead as with the soul cakes in Scotland. Great tables were spread both as a celebration for the harvest and to feed the dead.

Charms, spells and predictions were believed to have more power on the eve of Samhain. The usual performers were called witches after the Saxon word “wica” meaning “wise one.” Several times a year, witches from all over gathered at a sacred spot. One important date was April 30th, the eve of May, a day sacred to the mating of animals. Halloween was another important date and it recalled the hunting of animals by men. Witches were often depicted with black cats. Stealthy animals whose glowing eyes could see in the night, the cats were considered to be supernatural beings as far back as Egypt. Hecate, the Greek goddess who ruled over witches, wizards and ghosts, had a priestess who was a cat. To the Druids, cats were dreaded as human beings who had been changed into animals by evil powers.  On Halloween, a number of cats were always thrown into the Samhain fires.

Part of the Samhain fire is recalled in the Jack-O-Lantern. Some say the Jack-O-Lantern originated with a fellow named stingy Jack who broke his pact with the devil. As a consequence the evil forced him to roam the face of the earth carrying a glowing coat from hell in a carved out turnip. Pumpkins later replaced turnips and their orange color became a necessary hue at Halloween along with the black of night and death.

In tracing the origin of Halloween we recognize the source of much that has become the custom at this time of year and why children don masks and costumes, carve pumpkins and go from door to door begging for food. Pranks are played and everyone experiences the eerie quality this festival evokes. We are courting death, that mystery-enshrouded event which continuously reminds us of our dual citizenship; here and in the spiritual worlds. Every religion and every culture sets aside at least one time every year to remember and commune with the dead.




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