Every year throughout October, we prepare for Hallowe’en. Some people love it, some try to ignore it, others loathe it but we all feel its presence. Like a dream in the collective unconscious it creeps into our awareness and will not budge until the last trick or treater has gone home and laid its ghosts to rest.
The first signs appear, of course, in the shops. Bats; broomsticks; spiders; cauldrons and pumpkins can be seen everywhere. Then the preparations infiltrate playgroups, nurseries and schools. Because children love Hallowe’en and for them, its all about Trick or Treat. For the young, the emphasis is on treats – dressing up and going around the neighbourhood with a goody bag, which will, with luck, come back bulging with goodies. For the older child it may turn to trickery, ranging from harmless pranks to more serious misdemeanours. People who fall pray to these tricks may be heard to mutter about American Ideas, believing it to be yet another notion from across the pond that has taken root in our culture.
But did it really begin there? Or does Hallowe’en draw on an altogether more ancient heritage?
The truth is, like most modern festivals, its roots probably go back to the mists of time before recorded histories began. All we can be reasonably certain of is that this celebration, to our pagan ancestors, was the most important festival of the year.
To our Celtic forefathers, Hallowe’en was known as Samhain. The word Samhain means more literally Summer’s End. To these farming folk, there were really only two seasons – summer and winter. And this concept became reflected in their spiritual beliefs as dark and light; bountiful and barren; active and inactive.
Its original purpose was to celebrate the final harvest of the year and prepare for the hard days of winter. For our ancestors farmed the land and lived from its bounty. They had no science, no technology. Everything they had came from the land on which they made their homes; their lives depended on what they could hunt, grow or gather and so they lived with, and by, the seasons. In their tribal culture, they had to make the best use of what nature provided during the growing season and store sufficient to ensure their tribe’s survival through the winter ahead.
Samhain was celebrated around about October 31, or when the last harvest was in and the food was safely stored. Cattle would be culled and only those best suited to surviving the lean months could be kept until spring. The meat from the cull would be salted and cured to keep the families fed. The final harvest from fruit and vegetables was gathered and carefully packed to ensure good keeping. The last of the grain harvest would be stored for cattle feed.
Everyone high born or low was involved in this work. But at the end of all their hard labours, they would feast. This was a way of celebrating both their work’s end and of giving thanks to the Deities of the land who had provided their food.
It may seem odd that the end of summer should be celebrated as the most important of the ancient festivals. But to our Celtic ancestors, all things began in darkness; the day began at dusk and so it is logical that their counting of the year would begin at the onset of darkness too.
And perhaps it seemed only right to thank the Gods for their provisions after the harvest while also petitioning them to protect them through the winter to come. For just as Samhain marks the end of one season, it also heralds the beginning of the new. And so to our Celtic forefathers, Samhain was the New Year, or the turning of the Wheel. One of their many gods would straddle this time nexus, looking back over the passing year and looking forward to the days ahead.
I think there were other, more pragmatic reasons for beginning the year as the days of darkness approached. If we look at the lifestyles of these people, they were run by the seasons and at the end of the harvesting period, the time of planning for the next year’s work must be done. It would be no good leaving it until our New Year, when the days were so short that little work could be done. In October, however, there was still some daylight to get outside and do essential repairs on the land; hedges to cut back; fences to mend; decisions to be made about spring planting. And I wonder if this is how our now diluted New Year’s Resolutions came about – essentially an in-depth planning strategy for the next year’s labours, begun immediately after the New Year Feast of Samhain.
There may have been an even stranger reason, to our modern way of thinking. During the summer, any fighting over boundaries would be done; many of the men folk would go to battle, leaving the youngsters and the women to care for the land. As the days began to grow shorter and darker, the men would finally come home, for the darker months decreed that any hostilities would cease and for a few months the men would be back with their families, safe in their simple homes. What better time to celebrate?
And in that spirit of reflection and remembrance, their simple harvest festival of thanks and feasting took on another role, that of honouring their beloved dead and inviting them, for one night of revelry, to join them again in the physical world. This custom lives on in Hallowe’en with its themes of ghosts; is echoed by All Saints Day in honour of the Saints of Christianity celebrated on November 1st and echoes once more in Latin America on El Dia de los Muertos; the Day of the Dead. On this day families decorate the graves of their dear departed with flowers, sweets and other gifts. And so, the two themes most evident in modern Hallowe’en celebrations ~ of remembering the dead and divining the future ~ are inextricably linked to these first pagan customs.
So the ancient worship of the land brought about through our reliance upon nature made way for the coming of more modern religious practises. Its sacred purpose has been re-written; but Samhain or Halloween, our ancient heritage is alive and well.