“Sisters, All Hallow’s Eve has become a night of frolic, where children dress in costumes and run amok!”—Bette Midler as Winifred Sanderson, Hocus Pocus
We hear this line in the movie Hocus Pocus and we laugh because we can’t imagine Halloween being anything but a fun night for kids to trick or treat and adults to dress up and be as naughty as they want to be for that one night out of the year. We never imagine that it could have ever been anything else. But, where did Halloween come from? What was it when it began? To find the answers, we’ll have to take a journey together back in time to the lands of the Celts and their ancestors, whose practices would become the holiday we celebrate today.
While no one can nail down exactly when this celebration began, our nearest estimate for its earliest incarnation is around 5000 years ago. At the time, people’s lives revolved around the seasons of the year and one of the largest gatherings would happen at the time of the final harvest. It had no name that we know of yet, but the entire clan would come together as the last of the grains and vegetables that would ensure their survival through the winter were stored. Bonfires would be lit and the people would dance around them, giving thanks to the Gods for another year of bounty. From the earliest time, fire had been a symbol of the Divine in whatever guise, and they reveled in the connection they felt to the Gods in the warm glow of the flames.
As time passed, and the Paleopagan peoples of the region became more organized, a caste system developed that would affect all parts of their lives. A priestly caste, known as Druids, had come to power and they led the people in celebration of the four fire festivals throughout the year as well as ministering to their daily needs. Druids also acted as ambassadors between clans and judges for wrongs committed in the tribes. This is the first time when our holiday/celebration is given a name and that name is Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en”). Meaning “Summer’s end”, Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the descent into the “darker” part of the year as the Winter solstice approached.
It was at this time that Samhain began to take on another layer of celebration and meaning. The people were taught that on this night, the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest. It became common belief that our ancestors would roam the earth on Samhain night. Families would place an extra setting at their tables with food and drink for their loved ones who might pay them a visit. Candles were lit and placed in windows to guide the spirits to their destination.
But it wasn’t only their loving ancestors who could cross that veil. Other spirits could make that journey, as well, and not all of them had good intentions. In order to protect themselves from these mischievous spirits, the wise men and women of the Druid classes taught the people to be cunning on Samhain night. They were familiar with the stories of the “will o’ the wisp” which were spirits who appeared as small lights in the darkness. Travelers would follow the lights and become lost in the forests and marshes. So, the people would hollow out large turnips and place a candle or lightly smoldering coal inside to carry with them on Samhain night. Their hope was that the spirits would see their light and think they were fellow spirits, thus diverting the attention away from them. It also became common practice at this time, for villagers to put on masks to hide their identity and further confuse the spirits who might try to cause them harm. Here, of course, was the birth of our modern traditions of Jack O’ Lanterns and wearing costumes on Halloween night.
The Druid priests would call the clans together around the fires to dance and revel as they had always done. The wise women, learned in the ways of magick and the foretelling of the future, would cast their lots and read the signs to predict the events of the coming year. Young men and women would make charms to reveal the identity of their intended lovers. It was a golden time for them and their beliefs, but there was a new political and religious power on the rise and it would soon change the course of the people and their beliefs for all time.
I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of my series on the history of Halloween! Come back next week for Part 2!