Halloween – A brief History

October 22, 2012


At this time of year if I was squirrel I suppose I should be more concerned about making sure I had enough nuts to last the winter than thinking about Halloween.  However in reality it amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Every year millions of people, all over the world, celebrate Halloween, after all it is fast becoming the most popular holiday after Christmas, yet I suspect very few of the revellers have any idea of the true Pagan origins from whence it came.

To many it is a light hearted night of fun where the young go ‘Trick or Treating’ as daylight fades into darkness and then with themed and costumed parties the adults take over.    While to others Halloween is a time of evil spirits and ghosts and something we should not mess with.

Of course, as with most things Pagan many of the distortions from the truth come from the early days of the Christian church’s wild attempts to suppress all but their version of religion.  Not that we should forget Hollywood’s scary movies, which doesn’t exactly help anything either, but there it is, tell a lie often enough and when most people believe it… it must therefore be the truth.   However, as we know only too well history is always written by the winners therefore it is their version of the truth that goes forward and so it is with Halloween. 

 In reality, Halloween was never about evil but a celebration, the Celtic festival of ‘Samhain (or ‘Samuin’ as it is sometimes spelt),  a name derived from old Irish and literally translates to mean summer’s end.   It was a harvest festival and a time to take stock of food supplies for the coming  long winter months.

 The ancient Celts also believed that the border between our world and the one beyond became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both good and evil) to pass through.  Ancient ancestors were celebrated and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off.

 It is from the traditions of the warding off the evil spirits that we adopt the custom of wearing costumes as part of our modern Halloween celebrations.   The original purpose was to disguise yourself as an evil spirit and so avoid harm while you placed gifts and treats on the outskirts of the village to lure them away from the houses.   This was seen as a way to entice the bad spirits away and so ensure the village would be safe from evil and that next year’s harvest would be successful.

Not too hard to see where the tradition of ‘Trick or Treating’ comes from.

Another method of warding off the evil spirits and preventing them entering the home was in the form of a carved face.  Large turnips were hollowed out and a face cut into the front, these were made into lanterns and placed in window and doors. 

Anyone who ventured out in the dark would have carried the lantern as protection.   This Scottish tradition crossed the Atlantic with the early immigrants where turnips were replaced by the more plentiful pumpkin and the tradition of  Jack-o’-lanterns was born.

Hands up all those who leave a carved lantern on your doorstep to ward off evil spirits on ‘All Hallows Night ?’

The week preceding the Samhain festival day of October 31st would have been a busy time involving all the people of the village in preparing for the long winter months to come.  Much of the village’s livestock would have been slaughtered, because in those times it was near impossible to store enough food to sustain both people and animals.   It is this harvesting of live stock that led to the erroneous claims by certain religious groups that Pagans sacrificed animals to the devil as part of this dark celebration.

Even today many parents swayed no doubt by ill-informed and biased church leaders forbid their children from the fun of Halloween in the mistaken belief that it is actually some form of dark Pagan satanic ritual or devil worship.   At this time of year I try to remind them that Satan and Devil worship are actually religious inventions as is the term All Hallows Eve now corrupted to Halloween.    Sorry ! 

Bonfires too would have played an important part in the weeks leading up to Samhain, the fires would have been an essential part of food preservation as well as keeping wild predators from stealing the food. Over the centuries different regions would incorporate these fires into superstitious the various rituals trying to encourage the earth spirits into granting success in the coming year. In some places two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and the villagers and their livestock would walk between them in a cleansing ritual. 

In the dark of night these fires are likely to be the origin of the ritual black and orange colours we now associated with Halloween.    

It wasn’t until the Catholic Christian church started to take a serious hold of all things religious throughout Europe with papal edicts flying around to put a stop to all things Pagan that we actually see where the name Halloween comes from.  

Hallowe’en is short for ‘All Hallows’ Evening.’  All Hallows comes from an old English word halig’ meaning holy. It was courtesy of Pope Gregory who move the All Saints feast day from May to November 1st somewhere about 800 AD as one of the church’s many attempts to end the Pagan festival of Samhain.

So, there you have it, All Hallows’ Eve was created to allow the Pagans to retain their long standing tradition of honouring their ancestors before going to church to join celebrating the feast of All Saints day.  

Of course, now you know that if you carve pumpkins into scary faces and turn them into lanterns, dress up for the occasion and let the kids go ‘Trick or Treating’ and all enjoy the celebrations without going to church the following day then, in fact, you are celebrating Samhain and not Halloween.

You closet Pagan you !

As a small footnote:    If you happen to be a young single female, there is an old tradition that if you stand before a mirror in a room illuminated only with your lantern you will see the man you will marry standing behind you.   



5 Responses to “Halloween – A brief History”

  1. mallie1025 Says:

    Merlin, I loved this this–much like my own. Drop by and see if we got our research straight lol. The Church took almost all holidays from the pagans in an attempt to bring them into the Church, especially Christmas.

  2. laurie27wsmith Says:

    Another good read Merlin. It’s hard for a lot of people to believe that our religions stemmed from man moving away from hunter-gathering to an agrarian way of life. Bringing to the fore a multitude of do’s and dont’s into their lives to cope with the vagaries of nature and the growing of food. That and the evolution of thought processes required to maintain the now weighty process of food production and protection. This brought forth the world as we know it with kingdoms, armies, laws, beliefs so they could come to grips with what was happening in the natural world….the weather. The earliest gods were Babylonian thunder gods who smote people with bolts of lightning. The need to forecast the weather and phases of the moon and sun gave us sites like Stonehenge. The winter solstice, saturnalia, gave us that three day period when the sun seemed to stand still. It moved again on what became Dec 25th, the birth of the SUN. I could go on but you are aware of this. I think most Christians believe what they are told and don’t look further than the church door. The history of the church of Rome is a shocking condemnation of what a belief system should be. Killing millions of people over time in the name of god is far worse than anything a nature loving pagan could come up with. I imagine you will be preparing for easter, when we celebrate the ancient agrarian sacrifice for a good crop.

  3. merlinfraser Says:

    Thanks Laurie, love your thought about forecasting the weather, I wonder if the driving force behind that was the desire to be somewhere else when the Gods were in ‘Smiting’ mood ?

    You’re right I have a Blog for the truth both for Christmas and Easter and yes I understand you saying that most people don’t see past the church door.

    I am also planning a Blog on the Pagan wheel of life which explains the eight Sabbat or holy days.

    Off to have a look at what you have been up to lately.

    Take care

  4. Thanks for filling me in – very interesting and informative piece.

  5. Raani York Says:

    This was quite interesting, Merlin. Of course I know the Beltane feast. (As for being a witch… as some say). LOL
    I did not 100% know that the Beltane and All Hallows eve are so much related. One never stops learning.
    As for the “man in the mirror” witch saga: first time I tried it I saw a REALLY old and ugly man of so much darkness behind me, together with some old and scary witches, that I decided this tradition wasn’t worth so many sleepless nightmarish nights… *shudder*

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