Halloween in history

Halloween. Spooky and creepy, yet somehow romantic. A night when you can dress up as your imagination dictates. Beg sweets from strangers. And best of all, get a year’s worth of revenge on grumpy neighbours and not be punished!

Halloween developed from All Saints, a Christian feast celebrating the saints and martyrs. I say Christian feast day, because the word Halloween is a semantic drift from All Hallow Eve. But the festival itself has a much longer history. In an effort to uproot pagan traditions, the Christian church coopted existing holidays. In the 9th century, Pope Gregory moved the feast to the first day November, the date of Samhain, an ancient pagan festival with roots going back before written history.

Samhain was one of the four great Celtic festivals. The first day of November was the start of year for the ancient Celts, the end of the harvest when the goddess Bride, the incarnation of summer, was replaced by Cailleach, the incarnation of winter. On the eve before the New Year, the boundary between our world and the Otherworld became blurred. Fairies came out, and ghosts roamed the land. Fires were lit and sacrifices made to appease them so they wouldn’t play pranks the living. Men would dress as animal spirits to trick the fairies and stop their souls being stolen. The community came together in celebration, drinking and feasting for up to six days.

Turning Samhain into All Hallow Eve didn’t remove the pagan traditions, but they did change over the centuries. Community fires became smaller bonfires to protect farms and families from witches and ghosts. Sacrifices became offerings of food left outside the house for the fairies. Dressing up as animal spirits became guising or mumming—young men would don costumes and go from house to house, singing in exchange for cakes. Halloween pranks, once blamed on spirits and fairies, became part of the trick or treat tradition.

Since childhood, Halloween has been my favourite holiday. How could it not be? The night when the wall between the human world and the magic world can be breached! The night when fairies roam at will! Of course, in Celtic mythology, fairies are usually tricksters who don’t do humans any good at all. But in my childhood fancies, fairies were beautiful, kind, and gave awesome presents.

And, did I mention, free sweets?

Happy Halloween, everyone!