Celebrating the History of Halloween

Cultural and Food Traditions

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

                                                  – Stephen King

Carved rutabaga and turnips
Forerunner of Jack-O-Lanterns

Most children, when asked, name Halloween as their favorite holiday. Yet do they know that Halloween has deep roots in ancient cultures that involve the harvest, honoring the dead, and rituals from the past? Halloween can be traced to an ancient Celtic festival named for Samhain, the Lord of the Dead. Samhain was the god of cold and darkness who ruled the earth for six months. During his rule, the earth died, crops could not grow, and the sun lost its power to bring life. Samhain means “summers end” and it marked the beginning of the New Year in the Celtic calendar.

The Celtic calendar year began on November 1. On the eve of Samhain’s period of rule, there was chaos and drama. Samhain called together all the wicked souls that had been condemned within the past six months for their evil deeds. He had the wicked souls inhabit the bodies of animals on this night, and they came back to earth to terrify the living.

The soul of anyone who had died over the past year was allowed to visit his/her relatives on the last day of the year, October 31. The spirits could warm themselves at the hearth and enjoy the smell of food. Sometimes they played tricks on their visits. To appease the spirits and prevent them from creating mischief, the Druids, who were the Celtic priests, made them offerings. These offerings were first in the form of human sacrifices. Prisoners of war or criminals would be selected for the task of satisfying the dead souls. They would be placed in wicker or thatch baskets crudely formed in the shape of animals and burned alive or ritualistically executed. It was believed that the more victims there were, the more fertile the land would be (Burdick 1905:181). This of course is literally true in terms of the value of human ash as a soil enrichment even though we don’t like to view ourselves as compost or fertilizer.

The Druids performed another important service at Samhain. They were responsible for lighting new fires for the year. This was done by rubbing together pieces of the sacred oak. People would clean out their hearths and start the New Year with a fire kindled by their priest which was to bring them good luck for the year. The fire would burn continuously until the next autumn festival. People were getting ready to spend a lot of time indoors during the cold months and it was sensible to clean out the ash and debris from the past year.

As part of Samhain, great bonfires were built at dusk in fields to scare away the evil spirits. The fires protected the people from the forces of evil. They also fertilized the soil with their ashes and provided heat to keep people warm.

A farmer would sometimes light a small fire of his own in one of his fields, and when it was burning well and fiercely, would take a mass of flaming straw from it upon a pitchfork and carry it up to the highest point of the ground. There he flung it as far as he could over the land, to purify the soil and guard it against evil, and to make the crops grow in due course. (Hole 1975:98)

Young men built fires out of “peat, straw, furze, and potato haulm”. When the fire died down, the ashes were scattered over the entire field, the young men competing to see which one could kick the most ash over the greatest area. (Banks 1941:118) Pitchforks of hay aflame would be waved in the air to scare away the evil spirits.

With so many spirits in the air, Samhain was seen as a time for fortune telling and predicting the future. If the spirits were treated well, they might help with magic, if treated poorly, they could bring bad luck for the year.

Samhain was not just a time for wandering souls and sacrifices. It was also the harvest festival. This was celebrated with feasting and agricultural traditions. Everyone would come together for the sacrifices and the feasts to ensure fertility of the crops and herds. In Celtic mythology, the tribal god and the earth mother would engage in intercourse at this time to ensure fertility of the people and the land. (Cunliffe 1979:72)

This was the time of year when animals were brought in from the pastures. The continued grazing of meadows after the hay harvest would harm the fields and ruin the next years hay crop. (Orwin 1949:17) The livestock was rounded up and it was decided which ones would be kept for breeding over the winter. Culling of herds was necessary since only the wealthy could afford to feed livestock over winter. The ability to grow and store enough grain for animal consumption was a problem for the common man. The rest were slaughtered at this time for winter consumption and “salted down.” (Spence 1971:99) Winter was the logical time to slaughter animals since preservation of meat was much safer during the cold months.

The heads and skins of the slaughtered animals would be worn as disguises for those participating in a procession on Samhain. This festival was a time for masquerading and communal activities. The villagers would gather together to try to ward off the powers of evil. Farmers would place bells on their cows at this time to keep witches at bay. On a very practical level, perhaps it had more to do with alerting them to cattle rustlers or wolves, both threats to their remaining stock. Crossed branches of ash and juniper were placed over the stable doors as a symbol of protection and good luck.

Samhain marked the time when food amassed and stored over the summer was first opened for consumption. It was also a time when land tenures and service agreements were renewed. The ripened grain was harvested and stored. Thanksgiving was given for the harvest and feasting took place. The spiritual life of the people was manifested in traditions based on food and agriculture during this transitional time of year.

Roman and Christian Adaptations
When the Romans invaded the Celtic world during the first century B.C., many soldiers stayed on in the new land. The Romans had festivals of their own for this time of year that they brought with them. The Feralia in late October was a time to honor the dead. Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit and there was a celebration in her honor every November. She symbolized the harvest and people laid out apples and nuts for Pomona to thank her for the harvest. Pomona was courted by the rural gods and had offers of love from Pan, Silvanus and Vertumnus. Vertumnus was the god of gardens and changing seasons. He wooed her in various forms — as a reaper, vine dresser, fisherman, and soldier. Finally disguised as an old woman, he advised her to accept Vertumnus and when she did, he then appeared. The Feralia and harvest festival of Pomona merged with Samhain to be celebrated on November 1 by Roman and Celt alike.

Apples, native to Kazakhstan & Central Asia have grown since ancient times and their cultivation has spread to countries all over the world. While there are thousands of varieties, about 30 are grown commercially.

Pomona Roman Goddess of the Orchard

With the advent of Christianity, the Christian priests did everything they could to get rid of pagan customs. It was hard to convince the Celtic and Roman people that the gods and practices they believed in were evil. In A.D. 601, Pope Gregory the First issued an edict to his missionaries ordering them to incorporate the native customs of those they hoped to convert rather than attempt to obliterate or co-opt deeply entrenched traditions. For example, rather than prohibit all animal sacrifices, it was allowed to sacrifice oxen, then to be consumed. In the words of Pope Gregory, “They are no longer to sacrifice beasts to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the praise of God and give thanks to the giver of all gifts for His bounty.” (Hole 1975:98) This proved to be a much more successful method of gaining converts and Samhain and the harvest festival of Pomona melded with Christianity. The Christian church set aside November 1 as All Saints’ Day in the Seventh century. This was a day to honor all the Saints who had died for their beliefs, and a chapel in Rome was built at St. Peters for this purpose. Another name for All Saints was All Hallows. October 31 was known as All Hallows’ Eve, which was later shortened to Halloween. November 2 was named in the tenth century as a day to honor the souls of all the dead, especially those who had died during the previous year. The church officially recognized it as All Souls’ Day. Thus, the pagan Lord of the Dead became officially merged with the Christian celebration of the dead. The holiday lost some of its roots as a harvest festival and became a time to honor and fear the dead.

Day of the Dead