The Meaning of Samhain/ Hallowe’en: Past and Future

I love both the old Celtic holiday of Samhain and the modern secular holiday of Hallowe’en, despite the over-commercialization of the latter. They are two different holidays.

For me, they are both magical. Personally, I celebrate Samhain by honoring my ancestors: I light a candle and spend some time remembering my Nana, my other relatives, my mentor and a friend who passed away too young. However, that tradition comes later in the evening. First, I celebrate the secular holiday with whatever bright-eyed children materialize like spirits on my doorstep.

I remember Halloween and trick-or-treating fondly from my childhood in the rural farming communities of Pennsylvania. It was a time to greet and renew ties with far-flung neighbors and shower attention on the children. As an adult, I am delighted to carry on the tradition, spreading a little joy (and yes, chocolates) to kids and enjoy vicariously their costumes, their imaginations, their trust. There’s too few holidays left where we practice goodwill to strangers. I’ll focus on that, not the shameless commercialism.

By honoring ancestors and children on the same night, I’m putting a modern spin on Halloween’s root meaning, the transition between past and future, the dead and the living.

But let me back up. What was Halloween, and where does it come from? It is a complex hodgepodge of many different traditions woven together in a uniquely American melting pot, combining both Christian and pre-Christian traditions.

What follows is an impressionistic survey of some of Hallowe’en’s roots.

Samhain (Hallowe’en) was the name for the last day of the Celtic calendar, New Year’s Eve, or, in older traditions, simply the boundary between the “light” half of the year (summer and spring) and the “dark” (fall and winter).  Samhain is also the Irish Gaelic name for the month of November. A number of different overlapping Samhain traditions arose in different parts of the Celtic world (northwestern Europe and the British Isles.)

First, it was a festival of the dead. It was believed that on the last night of the year, during the transition from old year to new, the “barrier between worlds” (the living and the dead, the solid world and the spiritual) was at its thinnest. Those who died within the past year were supposed to cross over on Samhain eve, and bonfires were lit to guide them. There were also traditions connected with fear: spirits of all kinds were out and about, and one had to be  careful. Many traditions had people dressing in disguise to defend against unfriendly spirits. Ghosts could not catch you if they didn’t recognize you. Or perhaps it was whistling in the dark: in many world mythologies, one overcomes powerful forces by mocking or imitating them and thus making them manageable, “captured”, defined by human will.

In a similar vein, some Irish and British traditions celebrated the holiday by carving turnips with faces and putting candles in them  to scare away evil spirits, like gargoyles on Christian churches or goggle-eyed Fu dogs outside Japanese and Chinese buildings. The turnip-lantern became a folklore symbol of Jack o’ Lantern, the embodiment of winter, the opposite counterpart to Jack o’ Green, the spirit of the lighter half of the year. (In America Jack o’ Lantern became Jack Frost.) These figures were never believed in, no more than the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy, but they were a part of folklore, surviving in nursery rhymes which still use “Jack” for all kinds of generic, semi-mythical figures (Jack Sprat, Jack Be Nimble, Jack and Jill).

Second, Samhain was a harvest festival. It was time to bring in the last of the crops, burn the fields (which fertilized them), and bring in animals to pens and stables. It was a time to take stock of one’s grain and fodder, slaughter the animals one could not afford to keep, and smoke their meat so that it would be preserved through the winter. This was done with care and ritual, since killing was not then treated with the casual out-of-sight out-of-mind attitude we show nowadays for the meat that appears on our grocery shelves.

In some of these harvest traditions, practitioners wore animal skins and/or antlers to honor the animal killed. Later versions of these harvest festivals inevitably involved a certain amount of lads and lassies playing around in the fields while bringing in the sheaves. See Robert Burns’ “Halloween” poem for a good long sample of Scottish traditions in the 18th century.

The trick-or-treating tradition appeared in something close to its modern form in late medieval Scotland. Children in costumes went door-to-door “guising,” offering songs, dance or other performances in return for coins or sweets. This tradition seems similar to caroling at midwinter or the mummers’ plays of May Day. Pranks were also part of this “guising” tradition. This seems to have been the Halloween tradition imported to the states.

Third, Halloween was (or became) a Christian holiday, All Saints’ Day on November 1st honoring the saints, and All Souls’ Eve or All Hallows Eve on October 31st to honor the dead. The name “Halloween” is itself Christian: All Hallows Evening (A Hallow is something sacred). Morality plays and mime-like charades portrayed devils versus saints, sinners and the redeemed, witches and goblins as well as angels. It was not, however, considered “Satan’s Day” — certainly not; it was hallowed to the saints! That seems to be a relatively recent idea that grew out of those medieval morality plays plus, of course, the Christian notion that pre-Christian traditions aren’t Christian, so Satan must be involved.

Some Catholic traditions held that All Souls’ Night was the night that souls were released from purgatory and went to heaven; accordingly, good Christians prayed for them.

A Christian variant of “guising” was going door-to-door begging for “Soul Cakes,” given in memory of good Christians. You probably know the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the old rhyme that they would sing:

A Soul, a Soul, a Soul Cake
Please Good Missus, a Soul Cake
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry
Any good thing to make us all merry
One for Peter, two for Paul, Three for Him who made us all.

Confused by all these different ways of celebrating Halloween? Don’t be. Try not to fasten onto any one tradition as “the” definitive Halloween. Like wedding traditions, there were many local variations with common themes, common threads.

Hallowe’en boils down to this: harvest time and honoring the spirits of the dead, mixed up with a certain amount of fear of the dead and of the dying time of year, the darkness of winter.

Oddly, people often seem to defend against things that scare them by making artificial things that scare them even more, knowing that the ghost stories and disguises are fake. That’s psychology for you, and it is responsible for an awful lot of scary images in myth. The problem comes when you start taking myths, masks and costumes literally.

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