When the spirits roam the streets
A national poll in the U.K., conducted by the market research firm YouGov, found that forty five percent of those surveyed thought that Halloween is “an unwelcome American cultural import”; but this just isn’t true. Halloween’s origins can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Until 2,000 years ago, the Celts lived in Britain, Ireland and northern France. The Pre-Christian Celtic year was determined by the agricultural growing seasons and Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark cold winter. The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
It was believed by the Celts that on the night of 31st October, ghosts of their dead would revisit the mortal world and large bonfires were lit in each village in order to ward off any evil spirits that may also be at large. Celts dressed up in white with blackened faces during the festival of Samhain to trick the evil spirits that they believed would be roaming the earth. The current tradition of carving pumpkin lanterns is a relatively modern innovation imported from the United States but this tradition has its origins from the times when the Celts would carve turnips to ward off spirits and stop fairies from settling in their houses. The specific connection between bonfires, apples and Halloween also goes back to festival of Samhain. In order to encourage the sun deity to return the following year, ancient Celts burned huge bonfires into the night and tied apples to evergreen branches and offered up fruit and nuts, and animal sacrifices.
Pope Gregory, sometime in the 8th century moved the date of the All Hallows’ feast to 1st November from 13th May, in order to replace the Celtic Samhain festival of the dead with a related but church approved celebration where Christians would honour the saints and pray for souls who have not yet reached heaven. Of course the night before the feast day became known as All-hallows-even then Hallow Eve, still later Hallowe’en and then of course Halloween.
By the 11th century the Church had developed a tradition called ‘souling’, which is seen as being the origin of trick-or-treating. Children would go door-to-door, asking for soul cakes in exchange for praying for the souls of friends and relatives. They went dressed up as angels, demons or saints to protect themselves from the spirits of the dead. The soul cakes were sweet, with a cross marked on top and when eaten they represented a soul being freed from purgatory. By the 19th century, souling gave way to guising or mumming, when children would offer songs, poetry and jokes – instead of prayer – in exchange for fruit or money.
The tradition of the Halloween apple bob may seem innocent, but it has a steamy past. It was once a powerful symbol of fertility. In one popular version of the game, girls would secretly mark apples before tipping them into a barrel of water. Apples float, and as the girls’ potential sweethearts ducked to catch the fruit with their teeth, future couplings were determined.
So enjoy Halloween and remember it isn’t a recent American invention, it originated in Europe.