The Mystery Behind Halloween. Say Goodbye to Summer and Welcome in the Dark.
Halloween is a modern version of a very ancient celebration. Now it’s about children and sugar! Kids trick or treating for sweet snacks in fancy dress costumes; a children’s night of spooky fun. Carved pumpkin lanterns and bonfire parties.
But its roots are very different and lie in our distant past, with one of the four great Celtic fire festivals, still celebrated today by pagan people around the world. In the Celtic world, the year was divided according to four major solar events – winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice and autumn equinox. These celebrations were split up by the cross-quarter day fire festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. Halloween is the descendant of Samhain.
The festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in, Sah-vin, or Sam-hayne) lies at the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox (September 21/22) and Winter Solstice (December 21/22). It celebrates the turning of the wheel of the year; summers end and the onset of winter. It was also the Celtic New Year.
The growth and fullness of summer is gone and the harvest gathered; the land now grows quiet and prepares for the death state of winters cold darkness.
The old year dies and the new begins.
The seeds of the future – our future – lie dormant now, both in the ground and deep within ourselves. They will lie sleeping, waiting for Springs return and the right time to burst into life.
The descent into the physical darkness of winter is mirrored by our own creative journeys. Creations, inspirations, plans and projects, all need time to develop. Winter is a time to be quiet. To turn inwards and dream; reflection gives our ideas time to grow before we birth them into the world. Samhain marks the beginning of this journey.
For our Celtic ancestors, October 31st was the time when the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld were the thinnest. Samhain was, therefore, a time to remember family and friends who were dead and now in spirit. It provided a chance to honour them and reconnect; it was a time of prophecy, a possibility to receive guidance and messages from those departed souls. Rites of protection from the more dangerous inhabitants of the Otherworld would be performed, often involving disguising oneself – hence the Halloween tradition of masks and costume. Offerings to the dead would be made both in the home and also in the fields where the faery folk lived, to appease them and bring good luck for the coming year. If a family member had been captured by the Fae, Samhain was the only time in the year that you had a chance to get them back. As the Fae rode back to their winter barrows you could try and snatch your loved one from their faerie mount – a tale epitomised in the famous Scottish ballad of Tam Lin.
As a fire festival, lighting a bonfire was a central part of Samhain celebrations.
Bonfires were originally called ‘bone fires’; meat bones from the Samhain feast would be thrown on the fire as offerings to the Gods for healthy livestock in the coming year. The fire would keep the scary Otherworld folk away – demons, witches and the Fae, as would burning torches, carried around the boundaries of fields and home. In the Middle Ages, the familiar carved pumpkin appears (originally it would have been a turnip with a burning ember placed inside) – the jack o’ lantern. The turnip lanterns were used to ward off evil spirits, attached to poles and carried through the village.
The practice of carving vegetables into lanterns is an ancient one – the Maori’s were making them out of gourds over 700 years ago. But today’s pumpkin lanterns probably originate from Ireland and Scotland, and the tradition was transported to America in the 19 Century, with Irish immigrants.
A feast would be held on Samhain night. Many cultures throughout history have a tradition of leaving out food for the dead, and the Celts were no different. The family would gather and an empty place was set and reserved for their ancestral spirits. Food would be served and eaten in silence. And, afterwards, the untouched food and drink from the ancestor’s place setting would be taken outside, or left in the woods, as an offering. Some of the foods traditionally associated with Samhain are apples, bread and nuts. Apples are both a symbol of immortality and love. Because the boundary between the physical world and that of Spirit was thin, Samhain was a time when magic would be practised. Apples were used as a tool for divination, particularly in matters of romance. Peel an apple into a long strip and cast it over your shoulder to the floor. The letter it forms reveals the initial of your future spouse. Bobbing for apples is still a common Halloween game for children, but originally this was done to see the reflection of a future lover’s face in the water and bring good fortune if you managed to take hold of an apple in your teeth.
Apples were also buried beside roads as gifts for lost spirits, or for those who were without descendants to remember them. In Ireland, a special fruited bread was (and still is) baked for Samhain. Barmbrack (bairín breac) contained not only sweet dried fruits but was filled with other objects which would give insight into the future for the new year:
“Each item is supposed to carry a message for those concerned; to find a pea means you won’t marry over the next year, a small piece of cloth foretells poverty, a ring means one would be wed within the year, a matchstick to “beat your wife” warns of an unhappy marriage and a coin represents great wealth. While nowadays, it is unusual to find a Barmbrack that contains all of the above objects, the ring remains an ever-popular addition in commercially produced Barmbrac” https://www.manningsbakeryshops.ie/blog/irish-halloween-customs-tradtional-brambrack-recipe/
Hazelnut, a sacred tree to the Celts, was associated with wisdom and inspiration and also marriage, and the nuts were used for divination games at this time of year. ‘Sweetheart’ hazelnuts were placed in the hearth by the fire. The two groups of nuts were marked with the names of maidens and bachelors in the village that were ‘eligible’. As the nuts popped in the heat, the names of the nut pairs were linked romantically.
So, as the dark half of the year begins again and the wheel of the seasons turns, it’s time to have a party! Here are a few suggestions to incorporate the old ways into our modern celebrations.
Consciously remember your ancestors who are now in spirit.
Visit their graves and lay flowers. Get out their photographs and set up a special space in your home for them. Light some candles, and decorate with sprigs of fresh rosemary (symbolic of remembrance). Show them hospitality by leaving an offering – a plate of food, a cup of wine. Meditate on your connection with them and remember their lives. Listen – you may feel or hear messages from them. Thank them – you owe your existence to them after all. Without them, you could never have been born.
Invite your family and friends for a Samhain Feast. Dress up, make food together, and build a bonfire. Sit together and re-tell your family stories, ghost stories, scary stories. Share your memories of those no longer with you and pass the family history down to the next generation. Remember, and celebrate their lives and yours.
Reflect together on your dreams and hopes for the coming year. This is when the seeds of new beginnings are planted in your minds and hearts, to slowly grow and flourish once winter is passed. Take a piece of paper and write down anything you want to release in the next 12 months – habits that no longer serve you, old beliefs and patterns you need to be rid of. Cast the paper into the bonfire; imagine the old releasing to make way for the new.
Whatever you get up to on October 31st, be it modern or ancient, have fun and here is a blessing to help you on your way:
May the ancestors deliver blessings on you and yours...
May the new year bear great fruits for you...
May your granted wishes be as many as the seeds in a pomegranate...
May the slide into darkness bring you light...
May the memories of what has been keep you strong for what is to be...
May this Samhain cleanse your heart, your soul, and your mind!