Holidays: The Origins of Halloween
There are many articles all over the internet about the origins of Halloween and they all tell a slightly different version depending on the perspective of the writer or publishing body. Some take a very literal historical approach, sticking only to the details of the holiday as we know it today while others explore the ancient rituals of SamHain to find a deeper and more provocative narrative.
With this article, we will be exploring some of the more obscure details; the superstitions and traditions passed from generation to generation that are likely to have contributed not only to the Halloween that we are so familiar with today but some that even shape a variety of cultures in much more subtle and unexpected ways.
What most of you probably already know is that the earliest roots of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic peoples of northwestern Europe in a holiday called SamHain (pronounced sow-in or sow-en depending on regional dialect). November 1st was their new year and that made October 31st their new year's eve. It was believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead became gradually thinner as summer waned into fall and as the dead experienced more freedom to walk our terrestrial world their presence had effects and consequences on our everyday lives.
One of these effects, of course, was the spoiling and dying of harvest crops. As evidenced in the story of Persephone, to name just one, it is clear that the ancients believed that sustenance was not a necessity reserved for the living alone. Why else would there be a rule that anyone who partakes of the food and drink of the underworld must be slated to remain there unless it was believed that the dead needed food and drink? The spoiling of food was somewhat of a mystery in the pre-science times – why did a ripe apple suddenly begin to whither and rot? Why did a loaf of bread start to grow mold? One obvious explanation is that food, like all other living things on earth, must experience the endless cycles of life, death, and rebirth. However, the idea that the ancient peoples believed a loaf of bread qualified as a living thing is of utmost and often overlooked importance.
In many ancient religions from all around the world there exists a belief that all things possess an internal life force or energy from people and animals to rocks and trees and just as we consume the energy of the cow when we partake of a steak, so too do we consume the energy of an apple when we pluck it from the tree and eat it. Likewise, combining the ingredients for a loaf of bread, for example, does not destroy the energy of those ingredients but rather combines them into a new form of energy that becomes the soul, if you will, of the completed loaf. When a loaf of bread began to rot or mold it was believed that its energy or soul was being consumed by unseen forces – the spirits of the dead still walking the earth beyond the veil.
This concept, abstract though it may seem, begins to make sense when viewed from the perspectives of the ancient peoples. As more and more food begins to wilt, die, and fall from the vine, as trees begin to shed their leaves and crops begin to wither, it stands to reason that the ancient peoples saw this seasonal increase in decay as a direct correlation to increased spiritual activity. If the energies or souls of plants and food are being consumed at a higher rate, it stands to reason that the number, power, or voracity of the spirits consuming them must also be increasing and, thus, the belief in the thinning of the veil between worlds. A common phrase known in many northwestern European households even today is 'the spirits got to it' when referring to a piece of food that has gone bad, though many who use this term are no longer aware of its origins.
If you're familiar with your religious traditions of the world you may be wondering how a people that believes in rebirth, as the Celts certainly did, can also believe in spirits roaming the earth eating fruit-souls. Why are those spirits not reborn?
This brings us to the first interesting superstition as it relates to Halloween. Place yourself in the shoes of the Celtic peoples and imagine that you truly believe, or perhaps you already do, that the spirits of your deceased friends, family members, and enemies, are still roaming the earth and that the mysterious barrier between their world and yours is opening, allowing them a greater sense of involvement in your material world. You might be comforted in this belief when you think of grandparents, parents, or other dear loved ones – perhaps even excited by the prospect of being able to communicate with them once more. On the other hand, how might this knowledge make you feel when you consider less savory encounters such as a foe you defeated in battle or an elder that you tormented and pranked as a child before you knew any better. Might these spirits want revenge on you in some way? Might this concern you?
When balancing the existence and appearance of spirits with the belief in rebirth we must consider two elements: the first is the cycle of life or the wheel of time. The universal concept that the fall is a time for dying while the spring is the time of rebirth. Within this concept we can reason that one who passes in the late summer or fall may be required to wait in spirit form before they can be reborn come the following spring. What, then, might that individual do to entertain themselves in the spirit world while they wait? Look after their loved ones? Cause mayhem for sport? Exact revenge?
Also for consideration is the belief in unfinished business. This is not a new or modern concept as many may believe but a very ancient idea that one who had unresolved conflicts or important work that they were unable to see through to fruition, may postpone their rebirth over the lament and obsession of these unresolved tasks from their previous life. Certainly one with a grudge over their death or the events of their life might seem more likely to shirk away from rebirth out of contempt. While many perceive Halloween, or all Hallow's Eve, as the ideal time to communicate with deceased loved one through seances, readings, or other means – these concepts are the result of a much more modern perspective on life and death influenced somewhat by Christianity and the unofficial marriage of a continuing belief in a thinning veil between the living and the dead with the freshly rising belief in eternal death where spirits of the deceased permanently inhabit various spirit worlds such as heaven, hell, or purgatory.
Now, obviously the belief in eternal death is not a uniquely Christian concept. The Greeks very much believed that, with a few rare exceptions, what died remained dead as an inhabitant of the underworld. However, it was largely the Christian missionaries who introduced the concept of eternal death to the Celts and this influenced their perspectives and rituals in many profound ways. Nevertheless, prior to this notion it seemed that the spirit world was likely to be mostly inhabited by those of deviant, mischievous, or even violent intent. To this end, the living had to consider the ways in which they might protect themselves and this gave birth, if you'll pardon the pun, to many of the traditions – and even some of the very loose associations – that we correlate with Halloween today.
Among the most obvious are the wearing of costumes and masks to disguise one's self from those spirits which may wish them mayhem or harm, the carving and lighting of scary jack-o-lanterns (most likely more commonly made from turnips and other large roots in the ancient traditions) to frighten away spirits from one's front porch or even placing them on the grave of someone of particular concern to keep them from even leaving their burial site at all. Large bonfires were also important both due to the belief that spirits of malcontent shunned the light but also for the offering of sacrificial harvests and animals to the ancient gods in the hopes of pleasing them and securing a bountiful spring in the new year.
But what about the tradition of going door to door for candy? Could this possibly have roots in ancient traditions and, if so, what was its purpose? According to the official historical version, the practice of going door-to-door seeking treats and sweets is exceptionally modern, beginning within the last century in the United States and thought to be the result of a clever ad campaign by a prominent mail-order catalog company. However, there are older records of an interesting tradition that may have been the inspiration for trick-or-treating … however it was that it actually began.
Again, we are brought to examine life from the perspective of an ancient Celt. You had a very bad enemy who wished you significant harm but you defeated them and now you're extremely worried about what might happen when he or she is permitted their highest level of access to you from the afterlife. You've dressed yourself in disguise, you've placed a terrifying turnip on your front porch to frighten them away, but you still worry that this might not be enough. They were particularly cunning and formidable in life and could easily be just as cunning and brave in death. Perhaps they won't be fooled by the costume or frightened by the turnip. How else might you protect yourself and your loved ones?
One method was the preparing of favorite treats and dishes that were placed on the graves as offerings to the inhabitant spirits either to pacify the concerning or to honor and show love to the dearly departed. Children, on the other hand, are often far less superstitious and somewhat more pragmatic than adults (in some ways) and many would sneak through the burial grounds nicking the treats for themselves! Others would simply go to the homes of those they knew to see if there were any extra bits or leftovers that they might beg for themselves. Does this not bear striking resemblance to our modern-day ritual of trick-or-treating?
Another method for warding off an evil or malevolent spirit was garlic – though not exclusively, as there are other common foods that were used for the same purpose but obtained less renown – placed near the doors and windows of homes to keep spirits from entering. Now I know what you're thinking; garlic is for vampires, not spirits! But remember, we're discussing the ancient origins of modern traditions and I did mention loosely associated superstitions as well. We all know that garlic is thought to ward of vampires and we also know that vampires are a favored and time-honored costume choice for Halloween … but could their union be older and more significant?
It is thought that the smell of garlic is what keeps vampires and – possibly – malevolent spirits at bay but I struggle to think that the ancient Celts would really believe that spirits could have such a delicate sense of smell. Yes, garlic smells strongly but so do onions and several other varieties of plant so why is it always garlic, specifically? This brings us back to the concept of rotting food. Have you ever forgotten a bulb of garlic in your pantry for a long period of time and then discovered it hiding behind some canned goods, perhaps months later?
With most other foods such as potatoes, apples, or even onions, the result would be disastrous and the stench would probably alert you and send you looking for the cause long before the passage of several months. Garlic, on the other hand, seems miraculously immune to decay – especially in dry or temperate climates! In a dry climate, such as Las Vegas, a bulb of forgotten garlic will simply dry up but it doesn't shrivel or fall apart. I've forgotten a bulb before on several occasions (I confess, I don't cook much) and when I typically find it – sometimes months later – it appears almost unchanged until I actually attempt to break it apart and use it and then I realize it's utterly dehydrated … but not rotten and not shriveled. In temperate climates such as northwestern Europe, something even more remarkable happens. Even without the presence of soil or seemingly any nutrient source at all, forgotten garlic will begin to sprout new shoots!
Now, obviously potatoes can do the same thing as can many other roots and foods but eventually the bulb will rot and the liquid mess it will become is rather vile. Garlic is not immune and will do the same, given enough time, but the amount of time that it takes for garlic to decay is significantly longer than most other natural foods and we can't imagine that Celts were prone to leaving food just lying around in a pantry for months on end as it wasn't like they could just go to the grocery store and buy more when it spoiled. For this reason, it seems likely to assume that garlic appeared, to the ancient Celts, to never rot and as the rotting of food was perceived as an indication that its essence was being consumed by spirits, the Celts must have believed that spirits had a rather strong aversion to garlic because it appeared that they refused to consume it!
Despite ancient superstitions that may seem preposterous in the face of modern day science, and – of course – macabre traditions such as human or animal sacrifice, the ancient Celts were a highly intelligent people for their time and employed logical purpose to their actions to the extent that they understood the world around them. Superstitions rarely spring up from nothing more than pure imagination and when one seeks it is always possible to find an interesting and somewhat logical explanation for why beliefs and practices were born.
This is just a few of the origins of Halloween-based superstitions and traditions. Feel free to share others that you've discovered in the comments below!
(I would like to give credit for the beautiful graveyard photo at the top of this post to a very good friend of mine, and an extremely talented photographer: Rhonda Lynch. Please feel free to browse more of her stunning work on her website: https://www.viewbug.com/member/rondalynch)