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Tangled Roots: The True Story of Halloween

by Marlon Heimerl of HalloweenCostumes.com

Over two centuries ago, settlements of Celtic people occupying modern day Ireland, Northern France, England, Scotland and surrounding areas prepared for Samhain (or "summer's end") with ritualistic fervor.

With bon fires aglow and the smell of autumn rich in the air, Samhain marked not only the end of the harvest and the start of the Celtic New Year; it was a time when the veil between the dead and the living was believed to be thinnest.

Often regarded as the ancient precursor of Halloween, Samhain kicked off on the eve of October 31 and lasted through November 1 (the Celtic New Year) each year. It was the time of the annual livestock slaughter, heralded by great feasting and open attempts to commune directly with the dead.

"The Celts believed that the dead rose on the eve of Samhain and that ancestral ghosts and demons were set free to roam the earth…" writes Lesley Pratt Bannatyne in Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. "Samhain marked the start of the season that rightly belonged to spirits-a time when nights were long and dark fell early. It was a frightening time for a people who were entirely subject to the forces of nature, and who were superstitious about the unknown."

Similar to modern Halloween, Samhain was a holiday dedicated to the spiritual aspects of life, anchored by fear and wonderment surrounding death. Only, arguably for the Celts, Samhain was far more literal and deliberate than the customs observed by Americans on modern Halloween today. Let's observe.

Different Times, Different Beliefs

One certainly might even argue that the trick-or-treating, apple bobbing and costume parties we know today are but a far cry from their original, ritualistic precursors; represented in the customs of the Celts.

From 2,000 years ahead in the future, the customs observed on Samhain paint a clear picture of a far more superstitious ancient peoples occupying Western Europe than do today.

Indeed, the idea of witches, demons and spirits for the Celts were not reserved exclusively for campfire stories - they were genuine considerations made all the more troubling on Samhain when the waning of summer gave way to six months of cold, dark winter.

Specific Rituals

Bannatyne paints a picture that is easy to separate from the modern spectacle of Halloween in terms of the intensity and specificity of Samhain rituals.

Consider that on Samhain the living would quite literally invite the dead to their dinner table - preparing a plate, chair and all - and already the beliefs of those who celebrated Samhain differ greatly from modern day Halloween revelers.

Or consider that Druid priests of the Irish hillsides or the Celtic tribesmen would pray for the sun to return for fear that winter would never end and again, an inert meaning behind the holiday has since been lost on Halloween.

Not all jack-o'-lanterns are made from pumpkins. This traditional Irish one is caved from a turnip. (Photo by rannáirtí anainid licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Then, of course, there were the families from Wales who marked white stones which they threw into the ashes of their bonfires before heading to bed at night. Upon awakening the next morning, said families would wearily count the stones. If one stone went missing throughout the night, it was believed that there would surely be a death in the coming year.

Lastly, consider the story of Scottish farmers who carried lit torches of braided straw, walking deosil (with the sun) around the perimeter of their land to ward off witches and bring fertility to the crops.

In all instances and with a little distance and objectivity, it becomes clear that the customs and rituals of Samhain have been largely forgotten in contemporary American Halloween.

Tangled Roots-Samhain, All Saints', All Souls', All Hallows Eve & More

Clearly Samhain took some turns early on its evolution that changed it greatly before it finally became the Halloween we all know today. So if Samhain and Halloween are so different while at once, clearly cut from the same basic cloth, how and why did they change and evolve over time into the Halloween we know and love in 2013?

Samhain represented the culmination of many belief systems and influences. Indeed, Bannatyne points out that the Celts drew from the Roman harvest celebration of the goddess Pomona and practices of the early Catholic Church to form the customs of the festival in general.

According to Bannatyne, as the white American population had grown to 200,000 people by1680, the holiday continued to change with time. By the first federal census just over 100 years later in 1790, that number had climbed to 3,637,900 whites in the former colonies. While predominantly English, this burgeoning melting pot ushered in a slew of religions, histories and languages that resulted in the celebration of Hallowmas, or other autumn holidays.

For the more buttoned up Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, New Hampshire and Connecticut, a general deficiency of holidays were to be expected. For Rhode Island, however, which celebrated freedom of religion, and New York, which was colonized by New Reformed Dutch who were known to love festivity, things would have also been viewed and treated differently concerning the holiday.

The largely German and Swiss settlers of Pennsylvania brought with them spiritual and folkloric traditions (magic and witchcraft), which clearly had an impact on the beliefs of the region. And perhaps most directly, the Catholics of Maryland, who brought with them Saints days - feasts and practices of the Old World including Hallomas - clearly their beliefs leaked into the eventual birth of the Halloween we know today.

Rounding out Virginia was the Church of England, which celebrated Catholic saints' days and old English folk holidays. And to the south, Spanish Catholics, Africans and Anglicans molded the beliefs of the southern colonies to ultimately shape the Halloween traditions of the New World in that region.

A traditional American Halloween celebration circa 1905.

In a nutshell, Halloween clearly represented the culmination of no single practice or belief system, but instead the melding of an entirely new "animal" all together in the New World. In the end, All Saints' and All Souls' Days, Old World pagan beliefs, magical beliefs, witchcraft and many other factors ultimately helped to evolve the experience we know as Halloween in 2013.

Yet even with all that is known about Halloween, it is still easy for Americans to mistake the holiday for something else or to get its derivatives wrong entirely.

Author Lisa Morton discusses the pitfalls of pealing back the layers of Halloween in Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. She writes:

"Halloween is undoubtedly the most misunderstood of festivals. Virtually every English-speaker in the world can instantly tell you where the name 'Christmas' comes from…but amazingly few understand so much as the origin of the name 'Halloween'. The word itself almost has a strange, pagan feel - which is ironic, since the name derives from 'All Hallows Eve'. Prior to about AD 1500, the noun 'hallow' (derived from the Old English halga, meaning 'holy') commonly referred to a holy personage or, specifically, a saint. All Saints' Day was the original name for the Catholic celebration held on 1 November, but - long after 'hallow' had lost its meaning as a noun - the eve of that day would become known as Halloween."

Our Hodgepodge-Halloween

Clearly the roots of Halloween are more tangled than a simple short article can even do justice.

But one thing is for certain, no matter why or how you celebrate Halloween, it has taken on the unique character of the New World and countless cultural sub pockets in an ongoing dance of absorption, inculcation and adaptation.

Indeed, only time will tell the true future of the holiday.


For that reason, we would like to hear from you about what you plan on doing this Halloween. Even if it's as simple as trick-or-treating or going to a party at a friend's house, your traditions may very well be helping to shape the future of Halloween as did the traditions of Americans, Celts and people from countless walks of life and cultures over the centuries.

So let's make some history!

*If you comment, you will be automatically entered to win a $100 gift card to HalloweenCostumes.com. One winner will be chosen from the group of comments on Friday, October 15, 2013. Good luck, one and all and Happy Halloween!

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Works Cited

Angoar, Michael. The True History of Halloween.

Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History.

Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween