Halloween is among a student’s favourite time of year, providing a well-deserved midterm excuse to dress up, go to parties and get up to general divilment. It’s the one night of the year where you can cover yourself in fake blood, glitter or green body paint and no one will look twice because, hey, they look ridiculous too. Like many widely celebrated holidays, Halloween has become increasingly commercialised, but the spooky skeletons and mild mischief actually have their origins in ancient festivities.
The ancient pagan Celtic festival of Samhain was celebrated on 1 November, marking the end of the harvest season and the onset of winter. With winter came death and Celts believed that on the night before Samhain, the veil between worlds of the living and the dead became thinner and allowed the dead to pass through in the form of “púca” or ghosts and spirits.
It was believed that these ghosts would wreak havoc by destroying crops from the harvest unless they were appeased with offerings of food and wine. Sacred bonfires were also lit by the Celtic Druids to ward off the ghosts and burn offerings to them. People would often cover their faces with masks or ashes from the sacred bonfires to disguise themselves from the ghosts. Other aspects of the holiday have more Roman roots, specifically the worship of the Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees, whose symbol was an apple.
The pagan holiday was eventually Christianised with the introduction of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day on 1 and 2 November. Also called ‘All Hallows’, the Christian celebrations blended with the pagan tradition in the form of ‘All Hallows Evening’ or Halloween. New traditions also began around this time, such as ‘souling’, where the poor begged for small soul cakes and offered prayers for the dead in return, and ‘guising’, where children went door to door in costume asking for food in return for the performance of a song or poem.
Many of these ancient traditions are still alive and well today, but have evolved and developed, taking on aspects of other cultures over the years. The vampire, witch and zombie costumes that are so popular today are all variations of the same Celtic idea of dressing up as the dead to disguise and protect yourself, but are influenced by German and Haitian folklore. Of course, nowadays any costume goes and you’re as likely to see a cute bunny as a bloody corpse!
Nearly everyone will remember going trick-or-treating as a child, a new tradition formed from the old belief in mischievous púca and the old practice of guising. We can see the old offerings of food and wine mirrored in the giving of sweets, chocolates and nuts. Many of the other symbols and rituals remain too; bonfires are lit annually and serve as a gathering place of the celebration, and children bob for apples or eat ones covered in sticky toffee, in line with the symbol of the goddess Pomona.
Pumpkin carving also has an interesting origin story. Some stories say that lights were used to guide the wandering spirits along their way, while others claim that the ancient Celts carved grotesque faces out of turnips and lit them with a candle to scare the spirits away. However, the most enduring tale is of a young Irish man named Jack who thwarted the devil with a sign of the cross, so his soul could never be taken to hell. Yet, when Jack died, his life of sinful ways meant he was also barred from heaven. The story goes that the devil threw a burning coal at Jack in anger and that Jack placed the coal in a hollowed-out turnip to provide some light while he was doomed to roam the hills of Ireland forever. The name of Jack O’ Lanterns was inspired by his tale.
While our Halloween may have changed over the centuries and our Halloween priorities may have changed since we were children, it’s still fun to celebrate and honour our ancient customs and traditions with friends and family, even if we chose to do so dressed as a slice of pizza or Donald Trump. Hey, at least one of them is still a scary thought.
By Aoife O’Donoghue