The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween

Natasha sheldon - October 31, 2017

Halloween is one of the most popular modern holidays. It’s a time for pranks and parties, when grown-ups and children alike dress up as ghouls and ghosts and go out trick or treating, lighting up the dark autumn nights with pumpkin lanterns.

To many, however, it’s a frivolous festival; over commercial and meaningless. Some Christians disapprove of Halloween, seeing it as pagan and corrupting. Others, such as modern pagans, defend its ancient origins, reclaiming it from Christianity which they believe has usurped it.

In reality, Halloween is something of both. It is an ancient festival, initially intended to mark the descent into winter. People have known the festival by many names: Samhain, All Hallows, and Hallowmass being just a few. However, it is too simple to say anyone belief system has usurped Halloween. Instead, the festival has evolved, with beliefs from many cultures and religions- pagan and Christian- grafted onto the original idea. Time and circumstance may have repackaged some of the aspects of Halloween. But they remain. Here are nine of its elements and customs that show this evolution.

Time and circumstance may have repackaged some of these aspects of Halloween. But they remain. Here are nine of its elements and customs that show this evolution.

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween
Illustration of night forest alight with bright moon in clouds

1. Winters Beginning, Summer’s End

The festival celebrated at the end of October and the beginning of November, known today as Halloween, has its roots in the prehistory of northwestern Europe. Most people think it is of Celtic origin. The truth is, the origins of Halloween are older still. Our best evidence for the celebration of this old form of Halloween comes from the folk traditions left behind by the past cultures of the British Isles: its Celtic and pre-Celtic peoples, as well as its Germanic and Scandinavian settlers. The names they used for it are also revealing.

Samhain (pronounced sow-in), is the name by which we most commonly know this ancient festival today. It is an Irish/Gaelic term, which refers to the assemblies held by the ancient Kings of Ireland at the end of every summer. Here, the tribes would gather and feast- and divine what lay ahead. However, Samhain is just one of its names. To the Welsh, the Celtic nation whose principality occupies the west of Britain, October 31st is still known as Nos Calan Gaea- Winter’s Eve. November 1st, in its turn, is Calan Gaeaf- the first day of winter.

Between October 11-17, the Vikings held what their Sagas referred to as The Winter Nights; a series of festivities that began on the first Saturday of that period. According to Bede, the eighth-century Saxon monk, and chronicler, the Saxons referred to October as Vuinter-fylleth – the coming of winter and November as Blod -monath– the blood month. One of the characteristics of this time of the year in all these early agrarian societies was to slaughter all the weaker livestock to preserve feed for those that were strongest and more likely to survive the winter months.

For this was Halloween’s original purpose: as a festival to mark the passing of summer- and the beginning of winter. The motive of all those who celebrated it was straightforward: to weather the cold, barren months ahead. The earth was going to sleep. Farmers had gathered the harvest, livestock was close by and corralled in the home fields. Now it was necessary to protect all this, sustain the family and tribe- and survive.

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween
The Spirits of Samhain. Google Images

2. The Thinning of the Veil

The end of summer and the beginning of winter is, by its very nature, a transitional time. Past cultures believed that during this period, the veil between the material and spiritual worlds diminished. This thinning allowed those on either side of the invisible barrier passage between the two worlds. People could penetrate the veil and gain insight into the unknown. The spirits from beyond the veil, meanwhile, were free to explore the world beyond it.

These spirits were not the dead as some claim. Instead, they were the spirits of nature; in essence, ancient gods. At the end of October, people expected these deities to be much closer at hand than usual. But like all old gods, their character was nebulous. They could be helpful- but they could also do great harm. It very much depended on their mood and whims. These unpredictable attributes explain why these nature spirits are personified today as tricksy fairies, evil witches or demons.

Because the spirits were easily offended- and the after-effects of their ill will would linger even after the veil closed, it was essential for people to court them at the same time as protecting against their ire. This measure was especially important when facing the challenge of survival posed by the long winter ahead.

The fear of the malevolent aspect of these gods has translated down the ages into folk customs and beliefs that people widely observed in parts of Britain up until the nineteenth century. Each region had a particular personification. In Wales, for instance, Hwch Ddu Gwta personified the malevolent spirit of the season, a tailless black sow that caused mayhem, and chased anyone it found out abroad on Nos Calan Gaea.

Elsewhere, as in Ireland, the capricious nature of the gods was preserved in the Puca, a nature spirit/goblin who was good or bad, depending on mood. In the Shetland Irelands, Norse beliefs prevailed, and every measure was taken to protect the newly gathered harvest and cattle in the home pastures from marauding trolls.

These spiritual threats were probably ways of interpreting the natural dangers of winter. Tribes and families, therefore, did the best to win the spirits over, to protect the gathered harvest and their remaining livestock- and the people themselves. So one of the aspects of Summer’s End/Winter’s Beginning was the sacrifice- the sharing of some of the summer’s bounty with the spirits in the hope that this would satisfy.

So, the beasts culled in preparation for winter would become part communal feast- part collective sacrifice, as the community offered a portion to these gods. In later times, this translated into the traditions of leaving food on the threshold, such as in the Cambridge fens, where food was left outside the house to appease any witches abroad.

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween
A depiction of villagers driving away the Darkness. Google images

3. Bonfires and Lanterns

Bribery was not the only way to ensure safety from the spirits. Fire also played its part: to purify and protect. As soon as night fell on Samhain Eve, the clan would light the flames. This fire took a slightly different form depending on local customs. In some areas, brushwood torches were formed and used as to light a vast communal bonfire. Elsewhere, each family had their own, smaller affair. What was common was, the fires were a central rallying point for the family or clan, a place to gather in safety – and to use to drive away harm.

In parts of Scotland, once the clan lit the fire, a great shout would go up. Then, a youth would light a torch from it and run about the fields, to ward off the darkness- and by default whatever hid within it. In England, from the seventeenth century, the practice of Halloween bonfires began to die out, as religious reformers frowned upon old traditions and the blazes shifted to November 5, Guy Fawkes night. But the practice of purifying with a fire remained.

In Lancashire, it took various forms. The tradition known as ‘Laying the Witch’ became common in the hills around Pendle. Participants would walk the hills at around midnight, each holding a lighted candle to ward off witches. Elsewhere in the same county, farmers circled their fields, holding a wad of burning straw on the end of a pitchfork, to protect winter crops from any malicious elements. The smoke from the bonfires was also used for purification of people as they bathed in the smoke.

Fire has survived as part of the Halloween celebrations- right up until the present day in another form: the lantern. The Jack O’ Lantern as it was commonly known in the east of England became popular in the seventeenth century. Originally made from turnips or mangle worzels (and later, in America, from pumpkins) these vegetable lanterns were carved with goblin faces to represent the spirits abroad on Winter’s Eve. Such lamps lit people’s way through the darkness of the night- and were used to scare away any danger.

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween
Fortune seekers used Hazelnuts in Samhain divinations in Scotland. Google Images

4. Divination

The thinning of the veils also offered some advantage to humans in that it allowed them a peek into the future. Foretelling the future was a significant part of the Samhain gatherings of the kings of Ireland. Elsewhere, it was employed on a tribal level to attempt a little certainty at an uncertain time. Most divination was reasonably prosaic: who would live or die- and who would marry, and so by definition, perpetuate life.

In Scotland, communal or family bonfires would be surrounded by a ring of stones, each one marked to represent an individual at the gathering. The stones would stay in place as the flames died down and in the morning the clan revisited them. If any were found to be marked or moved, people believed that the person the stone belonged to would die in the coming year. Similarly, in Wales, each family member would score a white pebble and throw it into their family bonfire. If any person’s pebble was not found in the ashes the next morning, that unfortunate individual could not expect to live long.

But the divination at Halloween was not all doom and gloom. It offered hope for the future once winter had passed. In Wales, families cooked a unique winter stew of vegetables and milk with a wedding ring added as part of the Halloween celebrations. All the single members of the gathering were encouraged to eat up all the stew between them. Whoever found the ring would be the first to marry in the spring. In Ireland, the ring was baked in a tastier dish: the Bairin Breac, or Halloween cake.

Seasonal foods such as nuts could also be used to divine the future- and determine if a marriage was even worth pursuing. The Scottish poet Robert Burns described the practice of a couple roasting a pair of hazelnuts together to divine the future of their relationship:

“Burning the nuts is a favorite charm. They name the lad and lass to each particular nut, as they lay them in the fire; and accordingly, as they burn quietly together or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the courtship will be.”

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween
The Feast of All Saints moved to November 1st. Google Images

5. Enter the Dead: All Saints Day and the Lemuria

It was the Christians who added the dead to the Samhain celebrations when they established the feast of All Saints on November 1. This addition, however, still had pagan influences, as it included pre-existing elements from pagan Roman religion blended with the newly founded Christian traditions.

By the fourth century AD, Christianity was legal within the Roman Empire. St Ephraem, a contemporary writer, and Christian saint recorded how, safe and secure at last, the newly legitimized Christians began to remember the early Christian martyrs. However, this remembrance occurred at different times across the empire. The Syrian church chose Easter, the time of the death and resurrection of Christ. Greece chose Pentecost, the time of the descent of the Holy Spirit as its date instead. The date of choice in Rome, however, had no links to any Christian event. Alternatively, the Roman church celebrated All Saints on May 13- which just happened to be the date of the Roman pagan festival of the Lemuria.

The Lemuria was the day when the Romans exorcised malevolent ghosts from their homes. According to Ovid, it was instigated by Romulus to appease the spirit of his murdered brother, Remus. The paterfamilias of each Roman house, barefoot and dressed in black, led the household around the home nine times. While he threw beans over his shoulder intoning, “With these beans, I redeem me and mine, ” the rest of his family and servants followed, clashing pots to scare away the ghosts while shouting: “Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors, be gone.”

In 609AD, Pope Boniface IV declared May 13 the official empire-wide All Saints Day-probably because it sat nicely with the Lemuria’s direct association with the dead and would, therefore, wipe away the practice of the pagan festival. However, in 835AD, the date was moved to November 1st by Pope Gregory IV because of the insistence of the co-emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Louis the Pious.

Exactly why Louis requested this is unclear, but it seems that from 800AD, churches in England and Germany had been using November 1st for their masses. Perhaps the rites of the Lemuria, which had been dedicated to expelling malevolence spirits, and had now become associated with propitiating the Christian saints, were deemed to fit better with a festival at the dark time of the year, already dedicated to the appeasing of spirits. Either way, All Saints and all its associated rituals moved to join Samhain. And where the saints went, the rest of the dead followed.

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween
Candles Lit on a Grave on All Soul’s Day. Google Images

6. All Souls Day

In 1030 AD, at the Abbey of Cluny in France, Odilo, it’s Abbott, instigated the first celebration of masses for the broader Christian dead. A resident of Cluny had been shipwrecked on an island while on pilgrimage. While he was stranded, he had a vision of souls in purgatory, suffering. So on his return to Cluny, he went to the abbot and asked that the monastery begin to say masses for all of the deceased. Thus, Odilio instigated an annual commemoration of prayers and offerings for the souls in purgatory in all his associated monasteries.

However, according to Professor Ronald Hutton in his Stations of the Sun, these first All Soul’s masses were not held in November but in February. February was yet another month where the Romans had traditionally held ceremonies for the dead: The Parentalia and the Feralia. These festivals were possibly the inspiration behind this original date.

The Parentalia traditionally began on February 13. It was a time for families to remember their deceased in a gentler way than at the Lemuria. Instead of driving the spirits of their ancestors away, the Romans visited their graves, bringing them offerings of wine and flowers and even sharing a family picnic with them. The Parentalia ended after just over a week later, and the Feralia, on February 21, was the ceremony that ended its events and closed the door between the living and dead for another year.

The Parentalia may have been gentler than the Lemuria. It was, however, just as crucial to the Romans. For its aim was also to ensure that the dead remained in their place. The Romans believed if they did not honor and remember the dead, they would return- with a vengeance. The festival’s traditional ceremonies at the graveside and attentiveness to the ancestors matched the ideals of Christian remembrance. However, the idea of pacifying potential vengeful spirits also suited the atmosphere of the ancient festival of Samhain. This similarity is probably why, by the end of the eleventh century, the date had shifted to November 2- the day after All Saints Day and became the closing stage of the season’s ceremonials.

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween
Souling. Google Images

7. From Soul Cakes to Trick or Treat

Purgatory was a central concept of All Souls Day. It was the hinterland of the afterlife where most Christian souls could expect to go after death. Neither heaven nor hell, purgatory was the place where the not wholly righteous served their time before they were finally deemed worthy of heaven. However, certain things could be done on earth to shorten the sentences of loved ones in purgatory. Masses could knock whole decades off a soul’s time there. But Masses were costly. So it became customary for families to dedicate as many prayers as possible to aid the souls of their ancestors.

Those who could not afford a full mass or who merely wished to buy extra prayers could recruit the poor to say prayers for them. And so the tradition of Souling was established. Now, instead of giving food to appease the spirits of Samhain, those who could spare it gave it to the poor in return for their prayers. This food often took the form of the soul cake: an oatcake sweetened with honey and marked with a cross. Each cake meant a prayer for a soul in purgatory.

But with the Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century, belief in prayers and masses for the dead were frowned upon. The reformers believed a soul could only earn salvation in its lifetime and so purgatory did not exist. But the custom of Souling did not abate- probably because for many poor people it was a useful way of gathering alms over the colder months. Now instead of offering prayers when they went door to door, the poor would sing for their supper, asking for ‘a pear, a plumb, a cherry’ with the added hint that if the householder gave the alms, the Soulers would stop making a nuisance of themselves.

And make a nuisance of themselves they often did, as many Soulers added pranks to their repertoire of door-to-door entertainment. Knock and run became a favorite prank, or else doors were pelted with cabbages. Livestock or goods could also be ‘misplaced.’ In Scotland, these pranks led to Halloween becoming known as ‘Mischief Night’ and laid the foundations for the later traditions of ‘Trick or Treat’ which developed in America.

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween
Guising. Google Images

8. Dressing up or ‘Guising’

Guising or dressing up in disguise was a practice that went hand in hand with Souling. In fact, it probably predated it, stemming as it did from the original Samhain festival. Initially, guises were to fool the spirits abroad at Samhain by making the wearer appear to be one of them -or at the very least unidentifiable, and so able to escape their ire. Later, disguises were assumed when souling door to door, based on characters associated with the season with the intention of hiding the identities of the guisers from neighbors, not any spirits of the season.

Some areas in Britain retained traditional guises that related to the Samhain beliefs. In Wales, people would cross-dress to confuse the spirits, blackening their faces and dressing in rags. Men, in particular, would appear abroad disguised as ‘hags’- an attempt to mimic some of the spirits abroad on Winter’s Eve. In Ballycotton in County Cork, Ireland, the spirit disguises took on a different aspect. Here, a young man would dress up as the Lair Bhan, a white mare and fertility symbol. The Lair Bhan led a procession of youths about the town. They would blow on horns to attract attention and demanded money from the assembled crowds in the name of a legendary wild boar called Muck Olla.

It also became common to guise as Christian saints. Many parish churches were too impoverished to own statues of the saints to take out in procession on All Saints Day. So people dressed up as the saints themselves and acted out their stories. These parades in their turn became plays enacted by mummers around October 31, with characters that combined Christian and pagan traditions: angels, demons, saints and the spirits of the dead. These costumes later became a part of the Souler’s repertoire as they went from house to house, taking the offerings once made to the gods in a strange mix of Christian and pagan disguises.

The Weirdest Facts We Could Find About the True History of Halloween
Witch in the pumpkin farm by gofer art. Google Images

9. The Cultural Cauldron of America

By the nineteenth century, these diverse beliefs, pagan, Christian and hybrid were beginning to die out in Briain. However, around the same time, the seeds of them were being taken elsewhere and replanted, giving them a new lease of life in America.

Up until that point, however, Halloween had not made much of an impact on America. The first settlers, the Pilgrim Fathers, had no truck with the festival -or any other. As others from the British Isles with less rigid beliefs, settled the new land, they did bring with them their traditional beliefs. However, these traditions existed in small pockets, never really straying beyond the properties of the settlers.

However, in the 1840s, a large-scale influx of settlers changed things, as Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine took up residence in the New World. Such were their numbers that their old traditions and beliefs- Halloween amongst them quickly spread and reignited interest in the ancient festival.

Twenty years later and Halloween as a tradition was quietly establishing itself. In 1866 that the Daily News of Kingston Ontario recorded the first use of a pumpkin lantern during festivities in the town. Some years later, in 1911, the same publication described the resurgence of souling and guising as part of the new tradition of trick or treating. The reinvention of Halloween had begun.

However, the authorities sanitized the festivities so that they were suitable for children. Newspapers encouraged parents to take anything ‘frightening’ out of their Halloween celebrations. Thus Halloween lost much of its original context and meaning. This modification, however, did not stop the ‘tricking’ aspect of these supposedly family-orientated festivities becoming out of hand. So in the 1920s, the authorities took Halloween firmly back into public control, introducing community Halloween celebrations to stamp out vandalism.

This public resurgence in its turn contributed to turning Halloween into the tremendous commercial event it is today. This commerciality has made it a profitable export to other countries, with the result over the last couple of decades of American Halloween traditions once again crossing the Atlantic and returning to their source.

While many people are happy to embrace the idea of trick or treat, telling spooky stories, pumpkin lanterns and fancy dress parties without really considering their original meaning, the return of this ancient winter festival has reawoken interest in its original practices. In many places, regions are rediscovering and reanimating their old Halloween practices in response to the American resurgence. Halloween seems to have come full circle. Perhaps its evolution is not over quite yet.