The word halloween is a contraction of the Scottish word allhallow-eve (All Saints’ Eve), a celebration that “coincidentally” takes place on November 1, the same day as Samhain. Few people know the “Christian origins” of this festival, meant to erase pagan celebrations and make it something to celebrate God and all the saints. Which, of course, didn’t go so well, as Halloween celebrations are still going strong, and people remember this holiday more than their Christian counterpart.
Here in Brazil we divide its name between the “original” Halloween and Halloween, where we try, in every way, to emulate what we see in American movies of wearing costumes and asking for candy. Especially the fantasy part, because who doesn’t love to dress up, right?
The Celtic Origin: Samhain
It is not known exactly how the Samhain (samh = summer, fuin = end in Old Irish) was celebrated, although there are numerous speculations about customs such as human sacrifices. The Celtic peoples – a somewhat wrong name to refer to various ethnic groups (Belgae, Cantii, Icini, Brigantes, Voconces, Arverni…) – did not use a writing system to pass on their stories, they were people whose cultural manifestation was transmitted orally, which caused much to be lost. Part of this knowledge came from archaeological excavations and some rare materials found that were written later, after Roman rule. But know this: virtually everything you understand as Celtic came from the vision of the Greeks and Romans, who were enemy peoples.
Still, we’ll use the word “Celtic” to make life easier for everyone.
The Celtic people were very connected to nature in a religious sense. There was no mystical pantheon of gods with hierarchy, as there is, for example, in Greek mythology, much less an earthly form or a human representation of their deities. Their gods and goddesses were tied to natural events, so they would all be shapeshifters (shapeshifters), without a specific form. They lived not in the air, but in the land, in the rivers, in the mountains. The Celts also believed that words gained power when they were said – poetry was a form of incantation for them – and because of that, you know that thing your religious relative always repeats about not saying the name of God in vain? Well, the Celts believed that. The gods should not be called lightly!
Their deities lived in a place called Otherworld (Another World, in free translation), along with other powerful magical creatures. This other world was not only beyond our reach, on the other hand, it was intangible…except at a specific time of year.
Celtic ceremonies commonly focused on changing the seasons because of the importance they had on agriculture and livestock, but only two of them were relevant: Beltane, which takes place on May 1st and marks the beginning of summer, and Samhain, which, contrary to popular belief, takes place on November 1st (and not October 31st) and is the prelude to winter. Considered their New Year, it started as soon as the sun went down, when day turned to night. The festival served to celebrate the last harvest of the year, as well as a temporary abundance of food – and drink. In addition to other things, of course.
And it was precisely at this time, more specifically, in these 3 days of celebrations, that it was believed that creatures from the Otherworld could escape to ours, or even an unsuspecting one could accidentally end up there. The world of the dead (Siddh – in Irish) was open. It was necessary to be very careful not to be captured by a fairy – salt and iron prevented the pretty ones from getting close – or bump into the dead as they left their resting place. Because of this, when the royal official dusk, many locked themselves in the house in fear! In a way, Samhain was something of a pastoral festival of seasonal agriculture.
A romanticized representation of what this Otherworld would be is in a famous work by Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Arrival of Catholicism: All Saint’s, or All Saints’ Day
By the 7th century, the Catholic Church had already spread across Europe, and its missionaries had successfully converted peoples they considered pagans, such as the Celts. They realized that conversion would be easier if, instead of forbidding, they replaced cultural aspects with alternatives “suggested” by them, such as, for example, the date of celebrations and the entire cosmology of their religion (we can easily point out here the exchange they made of the Roman pantheon by Mary and the martyrs). Pope Gregory III, in the mid-eighth century, changed the date of Hallowmas (All Saint’s), which was May 13, to November 1, in an attempt to replace one celebration with another – and it didn’t work. Soon after, they created the All Soul’s (All Souls’ Day), which would be on the 2nd of November.
Legend has it that All Souls’ Day was created in 998 by Odilon, the Bishop of Cluny (a monastery in France), after he heard about an island that had a cave and from the entrance of this one could hear the cries of souls. dying. The date would serve for Catholics to be able to pray for lost souls, like those in the cave.
In any case, the church knew that they would not give up all of their customs and tried to mix the symbology of that date and the practices carried out during that date. At that time, the Irish (as they came to be called) lit their fireplaces to warm the spirits and left food for them as well. Even if, in general, such spirits were considered benign, they avoided meeting them, because who knows what the spirits decided to do in the afterlife, right!
Halloween: How Samhain Crossed the Ocean
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Irish emigrated to the United States (at the time, still an English colony), taking with them their customs and traditions, including the celebration of the winter solstice. This drastic decision was motivated by a wave of misery in Ireland, with a lot of food shortages, with part of the population having to decide between dying or emigrating. For many it was not a good solution, and in the new country they had no resources or capital. Luckily, the US economy was booming and produced high demands for work – mainly manual labor. We now know that they were considered outcasts, and as they monopolized low-wage jobs, a loathing of “natives” for immigrants began, in that eternal litany of “they are stealing our jobs” that we have heard a million times.
Trick or treat (Trick or Treat) is a phrase heard a lot at this time and is intrinsically linked to the pagan custom of leaving food for the spirits not to disturb the house. In this case, instead of spirits, we have mischievous children who receive sweets so they don’t mess up. We also have the famous pumpkin lit up with a macabre smile, Jack O’ Lanternwhose current story was born from a tale of Samhain – created already in post-Christianity -, in which a drunkard would have deceived the Devil, and after he died, neither heaven nor hell accepted him, forcing him to spend the rest of his days scaring people with a flashlight given to him by Satan himself.
A curiosity: there were no pumpkins in Ireland, so this macabre image was carved into potatoes or turnips.
In the beginning, this festival focused more on the Irish community, but there has been a North American movement for the holiday to become something more family-friendly, something made for the community. So at the beginning of the 19th century we already had the celebration as a party for children and adults to have fun, with games, specific foods for the date, costumes, leaving its religious and mystical tone behind.
The idea of the costumes, by the way, came from the Celtic belief related to the Otherworld, when they were afraid of leaving home and being kidnapped by fairies or other creatures that live in this parallel world. To avoid being recognized, they wore masks when they had to leave the house at night. Thus, the beings would mistake them for otherworldly companions and leave them alone. In addition, they also left food outside the house as an offering to these beings, so that they did not feel like entering their homes.
Halloween is also very much linked, nowadays, to the idea of witchcraft, black cats, demons. For centuries, Europe lived under the scrutiny of witch hunt, in which many people died. This “custom” migrated to the new world, where one of the most shocking cases of witchcraft took place: Salem. So when the Irish arrived in the United States with their pagan beliefs, they found many people prone to believing in witches.
With this integration of cultures, several Celtic symbols were re-signified. An example: Celtic druids believed that cats were once humans who were reincarnated in that little body as punishment. And witch hunters strongly believed that witches turned into black (specifically black) cats. Get your stuff together and voila: witches and black cats successfully entered Halloween! Of course it wasn’t exactly that, but it’s understandable a little.
Nowadays, this celebration has become the perfect excuse to commit petty crimes in costume, eat lots of sweets and enjoy the countless horror movies inspired by this celebration. There are still numerous superstitions linked to the holiday, all formed mainly during an unpretty time in the world. Of course, this is all just a summary of the summary, well squeezed, to tell a little about the origin of that day.
What many do not remember, in fact, is that today, in Brazil, the Saci’s Day, or rather Jaxy Jaterê. Want to know more? Send it in the comments!
But so, did you already know all this? Did not know? Want to know more? leave it in the comments!
Santino, Jack. Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances (link)
Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2002
Soares, André Luiz de Souza. Samhain to Halloween: From Celtic Feast to American Celebration. Cabo Frio, 2013. [Monografia]