When observed: October 31
The Fire Rites of Halloween
Earliest observance: Unknown
While The Name and most recent influences of
Halloween-the name means the evening before All Hallows or All Saints' Day, November 1- are Christian, the day itself is of Druidic origin. Most of the customs of the day are remnants of ancient religious beliefs connected with the celebration of the New Year, first of the Druids and then of the Romans who conqured them.
For the Celtic tribes who followed the religion of the Druids and inhabited Wales, Ireland, the Highlands of Scotland, and the promontory of Brittany, November 1 was New Year's Day. It was also a joint festival honoring their Sun god and Samhain, the Lord of the Dead. According to Sir James Frazer, these pastoral people selected this day because it marked the return of the cattle to the barns for the winter, just as their feast of Beltane on May 1 initiated the pasturing of the animals. The one day signified the beginning of
winter and the other the beginning of summer.
As in New Year's festivals
around the world, this was a time when the dead flocked back to mingle among the living. The Celts believed that the sinful souls of those who had died during the yea had been relegated to the bodies of animals. Through gifts and sacrifices the sins could be expiated and the souls freed to claim a heavenly reward. Samhain judged the souls and decreed in what form their existence was to continue, whether in body of a human being or in an animal.
It was common for horses to be sacrificed since they were sacred to the Sun god. There were also human sacrifices. Men, mostly criminals, were imprisoned in wicker and thatch cages shaped like animals or giants. The Druid priets set fire to the tindery cages and the men were burned to death. Human sacrifice was prohibited by the Romans who also destroyed the sacred sacrificial groves. In the Middle Ages in Europe, however, black cats were still being thrown to the flames in wicker cages, for they were thought to be friends of witches or even transformed witches.
The horse sacrifice was strill being performed at the feast of
Samhain in the year A.D. 400. Later the Christian Church assimilated this practice into its own services with the use of oxen. In the words of Pope Gregory the Great: "They are no longer to sacrifice beasts to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the praise of God, and give thanks to the giver of all gifts for His bounty."
Most of the activities of the Celtic feast, many of which have survived in modified form to this day, can be traced to the fact that this was a New Year's festival. One important example was the fire rite, which occured in many areas around the world on the night before the New Year. The old fires were allowed to go out and a new fire was kindled-usually a sacred fire, from which the fires of the village were relit. The Easter fires and those on May Day eve and the eve of Misummer Day also go back to a like source. The fires were thought to rejuvenate the sun and to aid in banishing evil spirts. Often the fires were lit on the hilltops. In fairly recent timesthe Halloween hilltop fires of the Scots were called Samhnagan, showing the lingering influence of the old god, Samhain.
All Hallows E'en
In North Wales every family built a large bonfire near the house on Halloween. The fire was called Coel Coeth and into its dying embers each member of the household would throw a wite stone, having first marked it for later identification. They would say their prayers as they marched around the fire, then go off to bed. In the morning they would come out to root among the ashes for their stones. If any stone was missing, the Welshmen believed that its owner would not live to see another Halloween. Often the people would jump through the
flames, as at other new-fire feasts.
In the Scottish Highlands, lighted torches were carried through the fields on this night in a sunwise direction, with the belief that this would help the crops thrive. Here also stones were thrown into a fire. After the fire died out, a circle was drawn in the ashes
around each stone and the people came in the morning to see if any of the stones had been disturbed. If so, that person would die within twelve months. The same fate awaited the one whose stone was found to have a footprint near it.
Another use of fire in Scotland on Halloween was in peat torches which were carried through the orchards to singe any witches that might be hovering about. A common belief was that ghosts and witches feared fire, and so it became the most trustworthy weapon against the evil spirits. While burning was a punishment for witches, it was even more important as a rite of purification.
In the eighth century Pope Gregory III moved the church festival of All Hallows, or All Saints' Day, to November 1; in the following century Pope Gregory IV decreed that the day was to be a universal church observance. It was in honor of all the saints who had died with or without offical church recognition of their sanctity. The eve of All Saints' Day-All Hallows E'en-became known during the Middle Ages as the time favored by witches and sorcerers.
Halloween in America
Since Halloween is not a particularly English or Protestant holiday, it was not widely observed during the first two hundred years of American settlement. There were small Irish Catholic settlements in which it was celebrated, but the great impetus was provided by the terrible potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s
which sent thousands of Irishmen across the Atlantic.
Halloween Costumes and "Trick-or-Treat"
Halloween is completely separated now from any relation it might once have had with All Saints' Day. The children of America have taken over the holiday, making it a fun-filled occasion to dress in outlandish costums, carve jack-o'-lanterns, go "trick-or-treating"
for sweets and fruits, and listen to ghost stories. Many of these customs, however, do have their origins in various ancient Halloween-New Year festivals; some come to us from more recent times.
The modern custom of going from door to door begging candy, nuts, apples, and pennies while masked and dressed in a grotesque or outlandish costume goes ultimately to the pagan New Year feast. The ghost that were thought to throg about the houses of the living were greeted with a banquet-laden table. At the end of the feast, masked and costumed villagers representing the souls of the dead paraded to the outskirts of town leading the ghost away.
Soul! soul! for a soul-cake;
With the advent of Christianity, various explanations were forth coming to give a more Christian rationale for the practice. The masking precedents have been found in the costumed parades of children who went around on the eve of All Souls' Day (the day following All Saints' Day) offering to fast for the departed souls in return for money or an offering. As one old song puts it:
Pray, good mistress, for a soul-cake.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for them that made us all.
Soul! soul! for an apple or two;
If you've got no apples, pears will do.
Up with your kettle, and down with your pan;
Give me a good big one, and I'll be gone.
Another explanation is that the costuming stems from the medieval practice of displaying the relics of saints no All Hallows. The poore churches could not afford relics and so instituted a procession with the parishioners dressed as the patron saints; the extras dressed as angels or devils and everyone paraded around the churchyard.
Apples and Nuts
As for the "trick" part of the trick-or-treat custom, it seems from many years in this country when the night before Halloween was
known as "Mischief Night." In some places the antics of this night were carried out on Halloween. Gates were unhinged and hidden, ropes stretched across roads in the dark, outhouses toppled, doorbells rung, bags of powder spilled on porches, and in general whatever mischief could be thought of was done.
The basis for Mischief Night is the old belief in ghost and fairies who roamed the roads on Halloween night curdling milk and riding people's horses to exhaustion. Any practical joke could thus be blamed on these little creatures over whom no one had any control.
In recent years, under the auspices of UNICEF, youngsters and adults have gone from door to door collecting funds for the poor
children of the world rather than treats for themselves. The practice is not yet widespread, but has been growing with the general social consciousness in many communities.
The Halloween apples and nuts so familiar to us entered this pre-winter feast through the Romans whose goddess of fruits, Pomona, was honored with a harvest festival at this time.
These glowing nuts are emblems true
The use of nuts for divination was so common that even
in American Halloween was once known as "Nutcrack Night." Charles Graydon wrote a poem in the early nineteenth century about Halloween nuts:
Of what in human life we view.
The ill-matched couple fret and fume,
And thus in strife themselves consume,
Or from each other wildly start,
And with a noise forever
But see the happy, happy pair,
Of genuine love and truth sincere:
With natural fondness while they burn,
Still to each other kindly turn,
And as the vital sparks decay,
Together gently sink away,
Till, lif's fierce ordeal being past,
Their mingled ashes rest at last.
This was written about the practice of placing nuts representing lovers side by side before the fire. How the nuts burned, whether wildly or evenly, determined the quality of the lovers' affection. Sometimes a girl would toss two nuts into the fire, naming each one after a suitor, and then watch the course of their burning. A bursting nut signified an unfaithful lover, while one that sustained a steady glow told of a beau constant in his love.
I pare this pippin round and round again,
Apples have been used both for telling fortunes and for games. A young lady would take an apple, called a pippin, and pare it in one continuous length; then she twirled the paring around her head three times and let it fall over her left shoulder. On the ground it took the shapes of her lover's initial. A popular old ditty about the superstition goes:
My sweetheart's name to flourish on the plain:
I fling the unbroken paring o'er my head,
My sweetheat's letter on the ground to read.
Ducking for apples and biting at apples suspended by a string are games of Ireland, Scotland, and parts of England that have survived in present day America. A more risky game was set up by fixing a lighted candle and an apple at opposite ends of a stick. The stick was then suspended and rotated. The object was to take a bite out of the apple while evading the candle.
Jack-o'-Lanterns: The Lengend of Irish Jack
In a custom that antedates our hallowed-out pumpkin lanterns, Irish children carved out the centers of large rutabagas, turnips, and potatoes. Faces were picked out on the surface and candles set inside. These grinning and leering jack-o'-lanterns served to light Halloween gatherings.
Goblins and Fairies
There is an old tale connected with the name "jack-o'-lantern." It concerns a stingy drunkard of an Irishman, Jack by name, who tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree to get one of the juicy pieces of fruit, then quickly cut the sign of the cross into the trunk of the tree preventing the Devil from coming down. Jack made the Devil
swear that he wouldn't ever come after Jack's soul again or claim it in any way.
This did not stop Jack from dying, however, and when he went to the
gates of heaven he was turned away because all his life he had been so tightfisted and mean and excessively thirsty. There was only one place to go, so Jack went down to the Devil's abode. But even in hell he was not accepted, for the Devil had promised never to take him. "But where can I go?" asked Jack. "Back where you came from," replied the Devil.
The way back was windy and dark and as a final gesture the Devil threw a live coal to Jack straight from the fire of hell. Jack had been eating a turnip and he put the coal inside it. Ever since then he has been traveling over the face of the earth with his "jack-o'-lantern," searching for a place of rest. That, so the says, is the
origin of those globe-faced emblems of Halloween that decorate the porches and windows and fenceposts of America.
The Irish Halloween was the time for the gathering of goblins and fairies, those extremely ancient beings who had their origins in the pre-Celtic past. They are said to have started out as the ghost of kings and heroes, with perhaps a touch of divinity in them, but the pealing of the Christian bells and the sprinkling of holy water reduced them to their present size.
Myers, J. Robert; Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays;
In Scotland a person could learn the names of the fated souls who were to die during the year by sitting on a three-legged stool at the meeting of three roads, for it was here that the fairies congregated and whispered the names. A garment thrown to the fairies after the pronouncing of each name would be sufficient to take away the onus of death.
Doubleday & Company; Garden City, New York;