The Celebration of Halloween

By Leean Lester

Ah—it’s that time of year again! Fall is in the air, and the leaves are changing. It’s the season of baking goodies and things that go bump in the night! I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the celebration of Halloween, to explore its history and discover the roots of some of our modern traditions. 

The roots of Halloween go back to the ancient Celts. October 31st was a festival known as Samhain (pronounced: sow-en), which is still celebrated as a religious day by many modern Pagans and Wiccans. The original Celtic holiday was a festival to honor the dead and to celebrate the last harvest of the season. It was a time to gather energies before the cold and desolation of winter. The Christians celebrated All Saints Day on November 1st, a holiday also known as All Hallows Day. Samhain then came to be known as All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en, the eve before the Christian All Hallows Day. 

Samhain was regarded as the Celtic New Year. This was a time for everyone to take stock of supplies and other necessary stuff for the winter. Animals were slaughtered on this day, and bonfires were lit and the bones of the livestock were thrown into the flames so as not to attract wild animals. It was also believed to be the time of year when the curtain between the living and the dead was thinnest. Even in Celtic times, costumes were worn on Samhain night in order to placate or fool any evil spirits that might be lurking about. Our modern Halloween ghost stories and visits to haunted houses are reminiscent of these ancient associations with death and the realm of spirit. 

Halloween arrived in North America during the mid 1800s along with the Irish, who carried vestiges of the tradition with them when they fled from Europe due to famine. In this way, certain traditional Halloween symbols like the jack-o-lantern, and activities such as trick-or-treating and the donning of costumes, have become part of our American celebration. 

Our modern Halloween decorations often include representations of skulls and skeletons which hearken back to the roots of this night as a time to honor the deceased. The jack-o-lanterns we place on our porches derive from a European tradition of carving frightening faces into hollowed out turnips and placing a candle inside in order to scare away unwanted spirits. The name Jack-o’-lantern goes back to an Irish legend about Stingy Jack, a stingy farmer that tricked the devil and suffered the consequences. According to legend, the devil took revenge on the farmer by placing a curse on him, forever condemning Stingy Jack to wander the earth at night with only a candle inside of a hollowed turnip to serve as his head.

In fact, most of our modern associations with Halloween have their origins in much older European celebrations. Due to their association with the Witch, animals such as crows, bats, and owls are prevalent in our modern day festivities. Even many of our Halloween games such as bobbing for apples have an ancient history.

If you’d like to learn more, here are a few websites that you might find fun. They’re filled with interesting facts as well as activities like stencils for pumpkin carving, games, party tips, recipes, and decorations:

Here’s wishing you a merry Samhain and a happy Halloween! Remember to beware of things that go bump in the night! Until next month, here’s wishing you a safe and happy haunting!

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