It’s that time of year when people dress up as witches, fairies, monsters and all manner of ghoulish getup, and gear up to go trick or treating. It’s just a bit of fun. Or is it? Is there actually something more sinister behind this seemingly harmless night of fun?
Perhaps if you knew its origins, you might hesitate before dressing up you children and letting them loose on innocent neighbours. Because Halloween isn’t so innocent, as it turns out.
Halloween has its roots as a pagan ritual traced back to the Celts of England, Scotland and Ireland, in the times of the Druids, who we would call “wizards.” They practiced black arts or magic, casting spells and performing rituals. Originally called Samhain (pronounced So-vern or SEWen), the Druids performed rituals that involved sacrifices to their gods, which some believe included human sacrifice along with animals and crops.
For ancient Celts of Ireland and parts of Europe, November 1 marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of winter, a time often associated with human death.
Celts believed that on the night before—October 31—a gathering of supernatural forces occurred and the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. Thus those inhabiting the other world could more easily come back into the natural world to cause all manner of ill, including destroying the next year’s crops and inhabiting people’s bodies.
As the people believed the spirits that roamed on the eve of Samhain were evil, they dressed as evil spirits or ghosts and the like to trick transients into believing they were one of them, and they would also provide food to please them. While some say fires were lit to keep the spirits away, others say they were an aid to the Druids in their occultist practices.
When the Romans invaded England, they, too, believed in many gods. They took this ritual back with them to Italy, as they thought this ritual would help protect their crops. Much later, when the Irish migrated to America during the time of the potato famine, they took this ritual with them.
In 835 AD, Pope Gregory IV had moved the celebration of All Saints’ Day, or All Hallow’s Day—a day in honour of all the saints, known and unknown—from May 13 to November 1. Obviously the night before, which was Samhain, came to be known as All Hallow’s Even, later turning into Halloween.
Previous to this, in 601 AD, Pope Gregory I issued an edict to the missionaries to use the people’s customs and beliefs by consecrating them to Christ.
Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native holy days. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25th because it corresponded with the mid-winter solstice celebrated by many peoples. But Samhain, because of its strong supernatural association, was treated differently.
All Saints Day was to be a substitute for Samhain, drawing the devotion of the Celtic peoples in the hope to replace the pagan celebration forever. The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. Instead, the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status, becoming the fairies or leprechauns of more recent traditions.
Today, Halloween is a much more commercial enterprise in which many people, both Christian and non-Christian, participate for a bit of fun. So what harm can it be? It’s a case of whom you are going to honour. Halloween or Samhain is one of the witches’ main sabbaths. Professed witches acknowledge this.
“The dead do indeed walk on this night and we witches do our best to interact with those who are willing and helpful... . Time knows no bounds on this night”; and “...the spiritual world is a world of shadows, and so a Book of Shadows provides a set of rituals and practices that allows the witch access to the other world.”
In other words Halloween is one of the main occasions where witches do whatever it takes to contact those on the “other side” because they, like the Druids, believe the layer between the two realms is at its thinnest.
The Irish Celts warded off evil with “head-shaped” vegetables, such as potatoes or turnips, placed as ornaments on the exteriors of their dwellings.nIn America, the larger, easier to carve and more common pumpkin became the vegetable of choice.
The jack-o’-lantern arose from the legend of “Stingy Jack.” According to one account, Stingy Jack was a miserable old drunk who liked to play tricks on everyone. One day he trapped the devil by tricking him into climbing a tree and then carved a cross on the trunk to keep him there. The devil retaliated by cursing Stingy Jack to wander the earth forever with the only light he happened to have at the time: a hollowed out turnip with a candle inside. And so “Stingy Jack” became “Jack-of-the-lantern,” shortened to “Jack-o’-lantern.” Over the years, as pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve, they came to be preferred over turnips for Jack-o’-lanterns.
Like everything else about Halloween, trick-or-treating consists of a mixture of various superstitions and customs. Many ancient cultures associated darkness with the spirits of the departed and took measures to pacify them or ward them off.
Two such customs come to play in trick-or-treating. One involved leaving offerings of food outside doors at night to pacify the spirits. Another involved wearing a disguise when going out at night to confuse any malevolent spirits. This evolved into the common American custom of people trick-or-treating in costumes, essentially impersonating evil forces who agreed to leave a home unharmed in exchange for some food. Saying, “trick-or-treat” simply makes that exchange explicit.