History of Halloween traditions; lost symbolism, meaning

FEATURE – Halloween is a day filled with candy, costumes, mischief and scary stories for many American children, but for the ancient Celts, and Pagans today, it is the time when the veil between this world and the “Otherworld” thins, the “summer’s end” harvest is gathered and a new year is welcomed with celebrations of fire.

Derived from the ancient celebration of Samhain, many of the traditions that have come to be associated with Halloween are steeped in deep meaning and symbolism. Samhain, pronounced sah-wen, comes from the Irish Gaelic word samhuinn which, literally translated, means “summer’s end.”

According to the book “Celtic Myths and Magic” Samhain was the night that the Crone goddess would go into mourning for the loss of the elder god who would die that day so that he could be reborn again at Yule. All would be lost to darkness as the old god returned to the Land of the Dead to await rebirth on the day of the winter solstice or the shortest day of the year.

On Samhain it is believed the veil that separates the Land of the Dead and this earthly realm of the living is at its thinnest and that dearly departed loved ones who have crossed over join the living and walk the earth visiting family, friends and participating in ritual celebrations.

The ancient Celts would light candles and leave them in the windows to help guide the friendly spirits along their journey. To honor and welcome their fallen ancestors who would return at this time, they would leave food for the spirit travelers to nourish while on their pilgrimage – leading to the modern day tradition of trick or treating.

According to the Dictionary.com blog “‘Why Do We Say ‘Trick or treat?’,” the practice comes from a medieval tradition called souling where the poor would go door to door begging for food and in return offer prayers for the dead. Additionally the blog stated that costumes derived from a tradition called guising:

Modern trick or treating is a custom borrowed from guising, which children still do in some parts of Scotland. Guising involves dressing in costume and singing a rhyme, doing a card trick, or telling a story in exchange for a sweet.

A website called Irish Genealogy Toolkit, however, reported that before the medieval period Irish people wore costumes to disguise them from the bad faeries who could cross the veil at this time and steal children, food and livestock to take back to the “Otherworld.”

“Being ‘between years,’ or ‘in transition,’ the usually fairly-stable boundaries between the Otherworld and the human world became less secure so that puka, banshees, fairies and other spirits could come and go quite freely,” the website reported.

Huge bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits and villagers would wear ugly masks and disguise themselves in the hopes of confusing the spirits who knew them and disliked them in life. The timid would set dishes of food outside of their homes or near the closest hawthorn or whitethorn bush in an attempt to appease the bad spirits and faeries.

Some would carve scary faces into turnips and place them at the entry to their homes to keep bad spirits away; this became the modern day practice of carving pumpkins.

According to History.com, the influence of Christianity had reached the Celtic lands by the seventh century and, as an attempt to do away with old pagan rituals, Pope Boniface IV designated Nov. 1 All Saints’ Day. The night before All Saints’ Day, Oct. 31, became known as Allhallows Eve and today Halloween.

“It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday …,” History.com reported.

Halloween came to the United States with a flood of Irish immigrants in the late 19th century. Halloween is now a national holiday practiced widely by trick-or-treaters across the country, according to History.com.

Iron County resident and Dianic Coven leader Melanie Cottam said that the deep, rich symbolism attached to many of today’s Halloween customs are part of the reason it is her favorite holiday of the year.

“We all come from a very long line of rich history,” she said, “and we don’t give it the time of day – we forget to pay attention to who we came from and what they went through and we just don’t take the time to honor that.”

Cottam said she has an altar in each room of her house that showcases the photos of loved ones who have passed on to honor them. There are cauldrons full of bones in each room of the house as well, symbolizing fallen ancestors who shed their blood to help provide all that we prosper from today.

One of her biggest frustrations resides with the misconception of Halloween being considered a “devils holiday,” Cottam said, adding that, as a pagan, she does not believe in a devil, and the idea that she would spend any time worshiping one is beyond preposterous.

“There is no devil,” Cottam said. “I don’t honor a devil, I don’t recognize a devil, I don’t honor a hell, I don’t recognize a hell – it’s just balance between day and night, and light and dark.”

Cottam said it saddens her that such a sacred and meaningful holiday has been twisted by a commercialized distortion of what it was truly about with the onset of scary movies and candy distribution. Though she said she would admit having a deep love for scary movies and spook alleys, Cottam said she wishes that more people would embrace the magic that is Halloween and take a moment to consider what it really is they are celebrating.

Cottam said she plans to celebrate “summer’s end” the same way she does every year – with family and friends, feasting from the last fall harvest in front of a beautiful bonfire under the moon.

“By buying a cheap costume, and buying a bag of candy, and just taking your kids out trick or treating,” Cottam said, “you are missing out on the most magical night of the year.”

Ed. note: CORRECTION made Nov. 1: The influence of Christianity had reached the Celtic lands by the seventh century, not by the 1800s as first published.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.



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  • groanattack October 31, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Carin, thank you for such an in depth explanation into the origin of Halloween, much of this I was already aware of due to research for my own curiosity, but you provided much more! Sadly parents, school, business, govt., and religion, the true evils, have chosen not to educate children or anyone for that matter of the origins of this date, and that is what is really SCARY!

  • sagemoon November 1, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Awesome article!

  • Red Rocker November 1, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Christmas and Easter also have their roots in paganism.

  • Roy J November 1, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Is that 1800s a typo, or does somebody seriously believe that there were any Celts in the 19th century anywhere, or that it wasn’t until then that Christianity finally spread to Ireland? XD

    • Avatar photo Joyce Kuzmanic November 1, 2014 at 11:03 am

      It was an error, Roy J. We meant to write the 800s, not 1800s. Thank you for the help, we’ve corrected the whole paragraph to read:

      According to History.com, the influence of Christianity had reached the Celtic lands by the seventh century and, as an attempt to do away with old pagan rituals, Pope Boniface IV designated Nov. 1 All Saints’ Day. The night before All Saints’ Day, Oct. 31, became known as Allhallows Eve and today Halloween.

      ST. GEORGE NEWS | STGnews.com
      Joyce Kuzmanic
      Editor in Chief

  • Roy J November 1, 2014 at 11:16 am

    Thanks Joyce, you the best!

  • Fr Nick November 1, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Perhaps History .com needs a history lesson. St Patrick set off from British Shores (therefore already Christian) in the latter half of the 5th Century to convert the Irish pagans

    • Roy J November 3, 2014 at 8:57 am

      Also might have wanted to reference the 7th-8th century works of Blessed Bede, or the 4th century works of Eusebius. For excellent modern commentary on the diffusion of the Celtic peoples, who were spread all over Europe, and vanished as mysteriously as the Vikings, check out ‘The Making of Europe’, by Oxford historian Christopher Dawson.

  • Jillian November 2, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    A lot of holidays have a basis in religion. That being said I celebrate Halloween pretty much like most individuals in America. Yes it has become hugely a commercial holiday but so has Christmas. I am Christian and feel sad at how it is interpreted now. That doesn’t change the fact that I still celebrate the true meaning of the holiday. It does have some pagan rituals embedded in the holiday but it is mostly a Christian holiday. Christ was actually born in the Spring but the date it was celebrated was changed to make those who were converting from paganism more comfortable by meshing their holiday on December 25 with Christs birth.

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