Evolution of Halloween: History & legends page 2
Historically, European Halloween traditions allowed the young freer reign than
normal on Halloween night, hoping to keep it at bay the rest of the year.
Scottish and Irish youths once engaged in elaborate pranks, the forerunners
of trick-or-treating, such as disassembling a sleeping farmer’s plough and
reassembling it, complete with horse, in his sitting room. Pelting houses with
kale roots was a minor pastime and goats might be lowered down chimneys.
Because everything was in flux and the veil between this world and the
Otherworld was believed to be thin, Samhain was a good time to foretell the
future. People consulted dead ancestors through divination and during shamanic
spirit journeys. To be sure the ancestors knew all the family news and
retained a helpful interest in their descendants, some families would picnic in
the cemetery at Halloween or leave a “mute feast” on the table for the
spirits and ancestors at night.
Of course, Halloween precedes the Catholic festivals of All Saints Day on Nov.
1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2, when people honor departed saints and relatives,
respectively. The Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, featuring vibrant
“death in life” images of skeletons in daily activities, culminate on Nov. 2. All
things ghoulish remain popular as costumes, decorations, and settings for
Halloween as well.
Why Is fear a part of Halloween?
Celtic tradition tells us that part of the process of entering spiritual
awareness is drawing our attention away from fear. This idea comes less from
ancient Gaelic manuscripts than from the Gaelic language itself. Scottish
Gaelic doesn’t identify the self with emotions as English does. In English you
can’t say you feel a thing without implicitly identifying it with your essential
self. “I am John.” “I am afraid.”
It’s the same structure.
By contrast, in Gaelic you say, Tha an t-eagal orm, literally, “A fear is upon
me,” rather than, “I am afraid.” One way of conquering fear is to think of it as
separate from your essential nature. You are not your fears; you are much
more than that.
At Samhain, people sometimes made effigies of what they wanted to banish in
the coming year, like fear or disease, and burned them. This Celtic festival
acknowledges that the changes we encounter in life as the wheel of the year
turns can be scary; hence, we have assorted “spooky” Samhain traditions.
By concretizing unknown scary change into an effigy to be burned, or making it
comical like the often funny little Mexican Day of the Dead figures, we make
There’s a childlike element of play at work at Samhain and Halloween. The
holiday gives us the chance to look at our fears and fantasies, to dress up like
them, and realize they aren’t so scary after all.
Traditionally, the ancient Celts only feared that “the sky should fall and the
sea burst its bounds,” as warriors told Alexander the Great. So long as the
natural order prevailed, there was nothing to be afraid of.
Because they believed in reincarnation, they considered death to be “the
middle of a long life.” As a modern Wiccan chant goes, “Corn and grain, corn and
grain, all that falls shall rise again.”
Whatever we believe about life and death, Samhain teaches us to face both
with courage, imagination and a sense of humor.
Rogers, N. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. 2003.
Markale, J. Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. 2001.
Morton, L. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. 2012