Halloween: An ancient holiday

Halloween: An ancient holiday


The earliest observance of Halloween is unknown, but the origins of this ancient holiday go back to pre-Christian times. The name denotes the evening before All Hallows or All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, but the roots go back to the Druids. Most of the customs are remnants of ancient religious beliefs connected with New Year celebrations, first of the Druids, then their Roman conquerors.

Druid observances

The Celtic tribes who followed the Druid religion and inhabited Wales, Ireland, the Scottish Highlands and the promontory of Brittany observed Nov. 1 as New Year’s Day. It was also a joint festival honoring their Sun God and Samhain, Lord of the Dead. It was believed that the dead came back to mingle with the living, and the Celts believed that the sinful souls of those who had died during the year had been relegated to the bodies of animals. Through gifts and sacrifices, the sins could be expiated and the souls released to go to heaven. Samhain judged the souls and decreed in what form their existence would continue, whether human or animal.

Horses were commonly sacrificed, since they were sacred to the Sun God. Human sacrifices also took place, and men, mostly criminals, were imprisoned in wicker and hatch cages, which were set afire, burning the victims to death. The Romans prohibited human sacrifice, but in the Middle Ages in Europe, black cats were still being thrown to the flames in wicker cages. These cats were thought to be friends of witches or even transformed witches.

One important Celtic activity was the fire rite, which occurred in many areas around the world on the night before New Year’s. The old fires were allowed to go out, and a new fire was kindled—usually a sacred fire, from which the village fires were relit. In North Wales, every family built a large bonfire near the house on Halloween. The fire was called Coel Coeth, and each family member would throw a marked white stone into the dying embers. Saying their prayers, they would march around the fire, then go off to bed. In the morning, they would return to root among the ashes for their stones. If any stone was missing, the Welshmen believed that its owner would die before the next Halloween. In the Scottish Highlands, lighted torches were carried through the fields on this night in a sunwise direction in the belief this would help the crops thrive.

The modern custom of trick-or-treating, begging candy while going door to door, dressed in grotesque costumes, goes back to the pagan New Year feast. The ghosts that were believed to throng about the houses of the living were greeted with a banquet-laden table. At the end of the feast, masked and costumed villagers representing the souls of the dead marched to the town outskirts, leading the ghosts away.

The legend of Jack-o-lantern

Long ago in Ireland, children carved out the centers of large rutabagas, turnips and potatoes. Faces were carved on the surface and candles set inside to light Halloween gatherings.

An old tale explains where the term “jack-o-lantern” came from. A stingy Irish drunkard named Jack once tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree to get a piece of fruit. Then Jack quickly cut the sign of the cross into the trunk of the tree, preventing the Devil from coming down. Jack made the Devil swear that he wouldn’t ever come after Jack’s soul.

But after Jack died, he was turned away at the gates of heaven because all his life he had been tightfisted, mean and drank too much. Dejected, Jack went down to the Devil’s abode, where he was also refused entrance because of the Devil’s promise never to take him. “But where can I go?” Jack asked. “Back where you can from,” replied the Devil.

The way back was windy and dark, and the Devil threw him a live coal from the fires of hell to light his way. Jack had been eating a turnip, and he put the coal inside it. Ever since, he has been traveling over the face of the earth with his “jack-o-lantern,” searching for a place to rest.

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