Halloween is a popular holiday around the world and lots of people engage in trick-or-treating with their kids, but where does the tradition come from?
In Gaelic history it was originally called Samhain (pronounced sow-win) and it is one of the fire festivals on the pagan Wheel of the Year. The wheel consists of 8 festivals around the solar year: 2 solstices, 2 equinoxes and 4 fire festivals in-between them.
It marked the end of harvest season and is a mid-point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. One of the reasons a pumpkin is synonymous with modern Halloween is because of the harvest. Most societies until the last hundred or so years centred around agriculture and the pagan wheel of the year is reflective of that. It helped them to know when to sow seeds, when to slaughter animals and when to harvest the crops. It also broke up the daily grind with something to look forward to after all the hard work.
Because everyone had to pitch in for the harvest, hearth fires would go out. Harvested fields were piled high with dead branches and set alight. At the end of the communal feast and bonfire, everyone took a portion of the fire home to re-light the hearth. It was generally considered their “new year” and an opportunity to reflect on the past year and set intentions for the new one.
On the more serious side, Samhain also represented the declining daylight hours and a descent towards the winter solstice. It’s synonymous with death and decay as the autumn leaves decompose beneath the frost.
The period of the 31st of October to roughly the 5th of November isn’t just the end of the harvest: it is said to be the domain of spirits. The veil between physical reality and the realm of dead ancestors, sprites, ghouls and fae “thins” so they can cross over into our reality… and us into theirs.
Pagans would set lanterns around the village to both guide themselves home after celebration and also ward away evil spirits. For their deceased loved ones they would set a candle in a westerly window to guide them home from the realm beyond the setting sun. To further confuse the spirits people would dress up to blend in with them.
Strangely enough, the Gaels are not the only people with a belief and tradition like this at the same time of year. On the other side of the world, South American cultures had their own ancestor worship, referred to as the Day of the Dead, or in Spanish; Dia De Los Meurtos.
On the 2nd of November the indigenous Mexicans observe a day of remembrance for their passed loved ones and ancestors. They too feel a thinning of the veil between physical and spirit realms. The tradition of sugar skulls evolved from a practice of actually digging up real skulls and looking upon their actual ancestors.
In terms of an appropriate ritual for this celebration, it traditionally centres on community and family. You might want to plan yourself a big party or collaborate on one with your friends.
For a solo ritual you’ll want to create an altar and populate it with photographs of loved ones who have passed on. Offerings of food and wine can be made and candles lit while you spend time in remembrance.
Whatever scale you’re operating on you can include themes of late-autumn harvest like pumpkins, a fire, and lanterns. Dress up as one of the spectres of the night. Tell stories about people who have passed to keep their memories alive, enjoy a delicious feast and set your intentions for the coming year.
However you mark this auspicious time, make sure you enjoy it.