Roots and Rituals - Halloween

Oct 31, 2014

The fall season ushers in shorter days, chilly evenings and traditions richly rooted in curious lore.

Halloween occurs every year on the 31st day of October but the preparations marketed by retailers begin in late August. Pumpkins, straw bales, corn stalks, fall-colored wreaths and vibrant mums abound to inspire the home décor enthusiasts but it’s the bustling of excited kids rummaging through the crowded racks of crazy costumes and accessories that captures the spirit of Halloween.

To most Halloween revelers, the holiday is an opportunity to decorate the house, host themed parties, carve pumpkins, dress up in fun costumes and score on some serious candy by trick-or-treating. Most don’t inquire about the history that spawned the festivities we engage in; that “spirit” behind Halloween.

It is believed that Halloween, and many of its characteristic traditions, is rooted in the pagan practices of the Celts some 2,000 years ago. The Celts, who occupied parts of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, engaged in an annual festival of the dead called Samhain (pronounced sah-win). Held at the end of October when summer had faded and the dark winter loomed on the horizon, the festival was steeped in mystery, dark magic and otherworldly mayhem.

On this day each year it was believed that the shroud between the living and the dead was lifted allowing departed spirits to cross over death’s chasm into the land of the living. Fairies, witches and demons also ruled the black night. Because it was thought that the dark shadows of the dead would pay a visit to their former dwellings, the living would prepare lavish feasts and a reserve a seat at the table for their ghoulish guest.

Lore has it that the living curried the favor of the spirits with offerings of food and drink left out for them to secure protection for their lives and livestock over the brooding, bitter winter.

Bonfires illuminated the night sky. The ritual flames were stoked as the smoke billowed to honor the dead, assisting them on their sojourn and hopefully keeping them at bay beneath the twilight. Sacrifices of food and animals were ceremonially heaved upon the towering pyre.

A gruesome rite, considered by some as fable, involved a divination game where each person laid a stone representing themselves around the fire, forming a ring around the flames. With torches in hand, participants ran around the blaze rejoicing. As morning split the sky, if a stone was missing, the person the stone represented would die, perhaps even at the fingers of the flames….

Fortune-telling rituals were part of the traditions of Samhain. Villagers would peel apples, toss the peel over their shoulder and study its shape in hopes of discovering the first initial of their future spouse’s name.

Roasted nuts were studied and if the nuts remained intact it was interpreted as a good omen for married couples. Egg whites, plopped in water, formed slimy shapes that foretold the number of future children one would have. Children chasing crows, apple-bobbing and mirror-gazing were believed to offer insight into the unknown.

Townspeople donned ghoulish garb, imitating dark devils, demons and spirits in hopes of escaping the attention of the roaming dead during Samhain. The costumed villagers went door-to-door, soliciting food for feasts, alms for the spirits or fuel for the bonfires in exchange for a song or recited verse.

The Samhain invited mischief and trickery. Pranksters of the night lit their paths with lanterns fashioned from hollowed out turnips with evil faces carved in their flesh. These were the early Jack-o-lanterns, a name that hails from the legend of a stingy rascal named Jack who tricked the devil so many times he was denied entrance into both heaven and hell and thereby cursed to wander the earth for eternity, waving his lantern to lure people from their paths.

The name “Halloween” comes from the movement of Christian missionaries, unsettled by the popularity of pagan practices within Samhain, who sought to morph the festivities into a more Christianized adaptation.

In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory I set out to subsume the native rituals as tools of conversion, not eradicating the deeply ingrained customs but consecrating them to Christ and the work of converting their followers to Christianity. Church fathers created two holy days on the first two days of November; All Saints’ Day on the first day to honor saints and martyrs, followed by All Souls Day on the second to pray for the departed. The church selected these dates specifically to coincide with the pagan festival.

Thus, the day before the two holy days became known in English as All Hallows’ Even which, over time, became the grammatical contraction known as Halloween.

It is difficult to say with certainty when the tradition of Halloween became a fixture of American culture, but with the arrival of swells of European immigrants came the colorful blends of traditions and customs they brought with them.

And so Halloween is observed to this day on the final day of October and, even as this account is assembled, kids of all ages are planning and plotting how to make it the most memorable Halloween ever.