Halloween has become such a part of modern tradition, that we often forget to realize it is one of the only secular holidays that actually has origins in the sacred. The childhood holiday of spooks and goblins has some macabre beginnings, and was influenced by many cultural traditions that seem to be shared in one time or another by a universal , if not archaic belief in ancestor worship. Today many countries have adopted the popularized themes of the holiday in the ubiquitous costumes, apple bobbing contests, and trick or treating. But the origins of “All Hallows Eve” are much more ancient, sharing a kindred desire to celebrate the dead with many cultures. With many elements of an early European belief in ancestor divinity, and the fear of what the changing seasons bring, Halloween is the culmination of many thousands of years of collective human traditions that worship the dead. The examples below are some of the festivals and religious practices that have contributed in influencing the holiday that we have come to know and love since childhood.
Perhaps the most widely known of ancient holidays, and due to the pagan revivalist movement of the 19th century, Samhain is generally thought to be the direct ancestor of today’s Halloween. While this is mostly true, the ancient Celtic festival was a central part of the belief system of the early northern Europeans. The term "Samhain" is still used as the name of November in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and also shares this namesake with the festival marking the end of the harvest in the waning days of the summer season. In old Irish “samain” means literally "summer's end", from sam "summer" and fuin "end", and although some of the meaning has been lost, originally it was also a festival of the dead.
The ancient Celtic ancestors of these people divided the year into two halves, a dark half starting in this very cold early fall, and the preceding light half of the spring and summer months. Many scholars believe that the Samhain, was the beginning of the Celtic year, with this celebration taking place during the beginning of the lunar cycle , or the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. This tradition existed even until late medieval time sin early Ireland, as many people believed Samhain was the principal calendar feast of the year. In ancient times the festival was celebrated with a great assembly at the royal court in Tara, the archaic hill fort and bastion of the Irish kings. The festival lasted for three days, and began after a ritual fire was set ablaze on the Hill of Tlachtga. This bonfire served as a beacon, signaling to people gathered atop hills all across Ireland to light their ritual bonfires. This ritual was called the Féile na Marbh in old Irish, meaning the 'festival of the dead' took place on the night of Samhain, or “Oíche Shamhna” and and was said to fall on the 31st of October. The word 'bonfire' itself is a direct translation of the Gaelic tine cnámh or Bone Fire, because villagers were said to have cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. October was the traditional time for slaughter, for preparing stores of meat and grain to last through the coming winter. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires and then each family then solemnly lit its hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together with the symbolic bones of their ancestors. The English travelers of the 19th century are said to have witnessed this ritual, and some reports say the highlanders of Scotland practiced this until s recent as the 1940’s.
Divination, or foretelling the future, was another practice that also survived in rural areas, and perhaps had it’s origins in Samhain. Often this was used to find out the identity of one's future spouse, the luck a family might have, and how many children you would bear. Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often employed in these rituals, with apple peels in particular were tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse's name. Nuts were also roasted on the hearth and their movements interpreted so that if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. The apple is symbolic of an ancient Celtic myths, where it is mentioned that in the heart of the Celtic Otherworld their grew an apple tree whose fruit has magical properties. The Old sagas tell of heroes crossing the western sea to find this wondrous country, known in Ireland as Emhain Abhlach or Avalon.The old hearthside games such as apple-bobbing reflect the journey across water to obtain the magic apple. Even today in rural parts of western Brittany, the last Celtic region of continental Europe, Samhain is still heralded by the baking of kornigou, cakes baked in the shape of antlers to commemorate the god of winter shedding his 'cuckold' horns as he returns to his kingdom in the otherworld. On the Isle of Man in the Irish sea, the Manx celebrate Hop-tu-Naa, which is a celebration of the original New Year's Eve and children dress as scary beings, carry turnips and go from home to home asking for sweets or money.
To the ancient Celtic priests, known in popular culture as Druids, Samhain was a time when the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead intertwined. This was the turning point on the calendar when infernal spirits and the ancestors of the dead could pass into the world of the living, and for this reason the ancestors and the the departed souls of the living were honored. In villagers homes a door would be opened to the west and the beloved dead specifically invited to attend and many would leave a candle or other light burning in a western window to guide the dead home. in these times the Celts still practiced the ritualized beheading of enemies, and these grizzly trophies would be placed on their door jambs to represent the departed. During the Christian era this tradition persisted with the ornamentation of carved turnips, eventually being turned into lanterns with macabre expressions. Believing that the head was the most powerful part of the body, containing the spirit and the knowledge, the Celts used the "head" of the vegetable to frighten off any spirits wishing to do harm. Even today, Welsh myths are full of legends of the Brazen Head, which may be a folk memory of this widespread ancient Celtic practice of headhunting - the results of which were often nailed to a door lintel or brought to the fireside to speak their wisdom.
With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed who had been canonized that year. The night before became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve. In later times November 2nd became All Souls Day, and was supposed to be when prayers were to be offered to the souls of the departed and those who were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven. Interestingly enough, apple bobbing, brazen heads, and “bone fires” still have become ingrained with this sacred holiday to this day.