The Fantasy And Folklore of All Hallows
- From Samhain to Halloween, Hallowmas
and Hallows Eve
- Provided by the Library of Congress
- September 1982
- Halloween had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian
Celtic festival of the dead. The Celtic peoples, who were once
found all over Europe, divided the year by four major holidays.
According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding
to November 1st on our present calendar. The date marked the
beginning of winter. Since they were pastoral people, it was
a time when cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures
and all livestock had to be secured for the winter months. Crops
were harvested and stored. The date marked both an ending and
a beginning in an eternal cycle.
- The festival observed at this time was called Samhain (pronounced
Sah-ween). It was the biggest and most significant holiday of
the Celtic year. The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain,
more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead
were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls
of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld.
People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables.
They also lit bonfires in honor of the dead, to aid them on their
journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all
manner of beings were abroad: ghosts, fairies, and demons --
all part of the dark and dread.
- Samhain became the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian
missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the
Celtic people. In the early centuries of the first millennium
A.D., before missionaries such as St. Patrick and St. Columcille
converted them to Christianity, the Celts practiced an elaborate
religion through their priestly caste, the Druids, who were priests,
poets, scientists and scholars all at once. As religious leaders,
ritual specialists, and bearers of learning, the Druids were
not unlike the very missionaries and monks who were to Christianize
their people and brand them evil devil worshippers.
- As a result of their efforts to wipe out "pagan"
holidays, such as Samhain, the Christians succeeded in effecting
major transformations in it. In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First
issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the
native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert.
Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs,
the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group
of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised
them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.
- In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant
concept and it became a basic approach used in Catholic missionary
work. Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native
holy days. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary
date of December 25th because it corresponded with the mid-winter
celebration of many peoples. Likewise, St. John's Day was set
on the summer solstice.
- Samhain, with its emphasis on the supernatural, was decidedly
pagan. While missionaries identified their holy days with those
observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion's supernatural
deities as evil, and associated them with the devil. As representatives
of the rival religion, Druids were considered evil worshippers
of devilish or demonic gods and spirits. The Celtic underworld
inevitably became identified with the Christian Hell.
- The effects of this policy were to diminish but not totally
eradicate the beliefs in the traditional gods. Celtic belief
in supernatural creatures persisted, while the church made deliberate
attempts to define them as being not merely dangerous, but malicious.
Followers of the old religion went into hiding and were branded
- The Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November
1st. The day honored every Christian saint, especially those
that did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. This
feast day was meant to substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion
of the Celtic peoples, and, finally, to replace it forever. That
did not happen, but the traditional Celtic deities diminished
in status, becoming fairies or leprechauns of more recent traditions.
- The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely.
The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong,
and perhaps too basic to the human psyche, to be satisfied with
the new, more abstract Catholic feast honoring saints. Recognizing
that something that would subsume the original energy of Samhain
was necessary, the church tried again to supplant it with a Christian
feast day in the 9th century. This time it established November
2nd as All Souls Day -- a day when the living prayed for the
souls of all the dead. But, once again, the practice of retaining
traditional customs while attempting to redefine them had a sustaining
effect: the traditional beliefs and customs lived on, in new
- All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (hallowed
means sanctified or holy), continued the ancient Celtic traditions.
The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intense
activity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate
All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural
beings were now thought to be evil. The folk continued to propitiate
those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out
gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became
Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe'en -- an ancient Celtic,
pre-Christian New Year's Day in contemporary dress.
- Many supernatural creatures became associated with All Hallows.
In Ireland fairies were numbered among the legendary creatures
who roamed on Halloween. An old folk ballad called "Allison
Gross" tells the story of how the fairy queen saved a man
from a witch's spell on Halloween.
- O Allison Gross, that lives in yon tower
- the ugliest witch int he North Country...
- She's turned me into an ugly worm
- and gard me toddle around a tree...
- But as it fell out last Hallow even
- When the seely [fairy] court was riding by,
- the Queen lighted down on a gowany bank
- Not far from the tree where I wont to lie...
- She's change me again to my own proper shape
- And I no more toddle about the tree.
- In old England cakes were made for the wandering souls, and
people went "a' soulin'" for these "soul cakes."
Halloween, a time of magic, also became a day of divination,
with a host of magical beliefs: for instance, if persons hold
a mirror on Halloween and walk backwards down the stairs to the
basement, the face that appears in the mirror will be their next
- Virtually all present Halloween traditions can be traced
to the ancient Celtic day of the dead. Halloween is a holiday
of many mysterious customs, but each one has a history, or at
least a story behind it. The wearing of costumes, for instance,
and roaming from door to door demanding treats can be traced
to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of the Christian
era, when it was thought that the souls of the dead were out
and around, along with fairies, witches, and demons. Offerings
of food and drink were left out to placate them. As the centuries
wore on, people began dressing like these dreadful creatures,
performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This practice
is called mumming, from which the practice of trick-or-treating
evolved. To this day, witches, ghosts, and skeleton figures of
the dead are among the favorite disguises. Halloween also retains
some features that harken back to the original harvest holiday
of Samhain, such as the customs of bobbing for apples and carving
vegetables, as well as the fruits, nuts, and spices cider associated
with the day.
- Today Halloween is becoming once again and adult holiday
or masquerade, like mardi Gras. Men and women in every disguise
imaginable are taking to the streets of big American cities and
parading past grinningly carved, candlelit jack o'lanterns, re-enacting
customs with a lengthy pedigree. Their masked antics challenge,
mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night, of the
soul, and of the otherworld that becomes our world on this night
of reversible possibilities, inverted roles, and transcendency.
In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a part
of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.
- Source: 1, Library
- Created: 10.13.2009 Updated: