“It is the night of nights in the year when the spirits of the dead take deep delight to walk abroad and disturb trembling humanity.”
Claire Barrand explores the dark history of Halloween in Welsh and Celtic culture.
Halloween or Hallowe’en is upon us once more, it is soon once again the night of 31st October. A time when many deem that the veil between us and the spirit world is thin and the dead can make contact with the physical world, a night when magic is at its most powerful.
Costumes, face paint, and décor get more elaborate each year as children dress up and traditionally knock on the neighbourhood doors calling “trick or treat” in exchange for copious amounts of candy or sweets. But how many of the young generation are aware that the origins of these celebrations are far from new and in fact date back thousands of years, to pagan times?
The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. (pronounced SAH-win or SOW-in -a Gaelic word meaning ‘Summer’s End’) In Wales, this was known as. “Nos Calan Gaeaf” This is the most popular Halloween tradition in Wales. The Welsh translation, interestingly, is ‘the first of winter.'
Until 2,000 years ago, the Celts lived in the lands we now know as Britain, Ireland, and Northern France. Primarily populated by farming and agricultural people, the Pre-Christian Celtic year was determined by the growing seasons, and Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. The festival literally symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. November 1st was considered the end of the summer, and the start of the month of death in the Celtic calendar, the date on which the herds were returned from pasture and animals were slaughtered to provide meat for winter. Indeed, the Modern Welsh for November Tachwedd literally means ‘The Month of Slaughter.'
It was thought by the Celts that on the night of 31st October, ghosts of their dead would rise and large bonfires were lit in each village to ward off any evil spirits that may also be at large. Their flames, smoke, and ashes were considered to have protective and cleansing powers and were also used for divination. Sometimes, torches lit from the bonfire were carried sun-wise around homes and fields to protect them. It is possible that the fires were a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic they mimicked the Sun, defeating the darkness of winter.
One tradition observed would be where each member of the family would throw into the blazing fire, a white stone each with an initial on it. Next morning, among the charred ashes these rocks are sought for, and if one of them has disappeared, it is believed that the unlucky thrower will never see another All Saints’ Day.
It was not only ghosts that people feared on Halloween night as it was also believed that the Aos Sí (pronounced ees shee), the 'spirits' or 'fae” were more active. Both respected and feared people would invoke God’s protection for their homes. Offerings of food and drink would be left out to appease the fae and even an extra place set at the table and by the fireside to welcome them.
Druids would have led Samhain celebrations in these early times. They would have ensured that the hearth fire of each house was re-lit from the embers of the sacred bonfire, to help protect the people and keep them warm through the forthcoming long, dark winter months.
Carved Jack O lanterns were in fact made initially from turnips. There is a famous Irish Christian folktale associated with the jack-o'-lantern, which in folklore is said to signify a "soul who has been denied entry into both heaven and hell, and the lamps were lit to guide the dead back to earth. The Celts also kitted out in costumes, but they would have worn animal skins, masks, and other disguises to avoid being recognised by the ghosts thought to be present. Halloween was also a time when fortune telling was popular. Different traditions included apple bobbing, scrying or mirror-gazing, pouring molten lead or egg whites into the water, and dream interpretation.
When in the later years Christianity overtook as the most popular religion, they introduced “All Hallows’ Day,” also known as “All Saints Day,” a day to remember those who had died for their beliefs. This this was in fact initially celebrated on 13th May until Pope Gregory had the date of the All Hallows’ feast moved to 1st November in the 8th century.
The night or evening of Samhain, therefore, became known as All-hallows-eve then Hallow Eve, still later Hallowe’en and then of course Halloween. In the eleventh century, a new festival was added to the calendar; All Souls Day on 2 November. The three celebrations of All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls collectively became known as “Hallowmas.”
The custom of “trick-or-treating” evolved during the Middle Ages when beggars would travel from village to village and beg for “soul cakes.” It was customary for town criers dressed in black to walk the streets, ringing a bell and calling on Christians to remember the dead. "Souling" was the custom of baking and sharing soul cakes and prayers for all christened souls.
Fire sticks and torches and bonfires had a further grim significance on the eve of All Saints' Day.
Queen Mab is a fairy referred to in Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, where she is the “fairies' midwife,” described as a small creature who performs midnight pranks upon sleepers, sometimes fulfilling desires but sometimes leaving nasty blisters on the lips should she so choose.
The Daily Telegraph reported in 1882…
“It may be all very foolish and inconsistent with the severity of this extremely matter-of-fact age, but there are scores of country folks, even of today, who have the utmost faith in the existence of some Queen Mab "that plats the manes of horses in the night, and bakes the elf locks in foul sluttish hairs, which once entangled much misfortune bodes."
Such Mabs and elves and witches must be guarded against to ward off their evil eyes and mischievous influence. It is the fire that is their bane. Let the farmer carry a bunch of straw fired about his corn and all will be well with the crop; let him murmur some such incantation as “, Fire and red low light on my team now," and he is likely to avoid any subsequent danger or mischance; let the laborer light a torch and flash the fiery cross in the air, and away will fly the witches, baffled and undone”
This is why fire sticks were among the most common asset of a well-considered Halloween. The same use was to be found in the scarlet -berries of the rowan tree or mountain ash, and in a coil of scarlet wool. They say in Scotland,
“Rowan tree and red thread. To gar the witches and dance them dead,"
Which, being interpreted, means to dance down until they die from exhaustion.
Variations of these bonfire ceremonies were observed in all parts of the country. The love ceremonies in connection with Halloween are almost as numerous as those connected with St. Valentine's Day, and apples, as well as nuts, play a curious part in the prediction of the destinies of young people. To burn two nuts side by side to see if the flame is mutual, steadfast, and enduring, or sudden, fitful, and impetuous, was common as was the old trick of flinging orange or apple peel over the shoulder to see what initial it would form. Many young women also believed that if they took a candle and stood