Writer describes Samhain and origins of Halloween

The writer is a deaconess in the Preston, England, congregation of the United Church of God.

By Barbara Fenney

WARRINGTON, England­The Celts were a race of people who, by the third century B.C., inhabited much of northwestern Europe, including Ireland, Britain, Germany and Spain. Their gods were similar to those of Rome, and Celtic mythology is rich in tales of great exploits.

The Celtic year was essentially divided in two, with the summer half beginning on Beltane, or Cetshamhain, falling on May 1, and the winter half, called Samhain, commencing on Nov. 1.

There were also two quarter days, Imbolc on Feb. 1 and Lughnasadh on Aug. 1. Celebrations usually began the evening before-since Celtic days began and ended at sunset-and often lasted several days. Samhain was considered the beginning of the year.

Cult of the Dead

Originating in the Cult of the Dead, which itself came from a belief in the immortality of the soul, Samhain was the festival of the dead, a time to remember ancestors and one when witches and ghosts were supposed to be abroad.

Fires, called samhnagan, were lit to keep away these evil spirits and to encourage, by sympathetic magic, the return of the sun, which had not yet reached its nadir, yet already was visible only a few hours each day. Witches were often burned on these fires.

In Scotland as late as Victorian times an effigy of a witch, the Shandy Dann, would be burned. Because animals, for whom there would not be enough winter fodder, were ritually slaughtered at this time of year, it was also a season of feasting.

Bonfire Night

Celebrations included reversal of the normal order of things and the reign of chaos, symbolized by practical jokes, such as blocking up chimneys. Children would go from house to house begging, "Gi' us peat to burn up the witches." This custom continues to this day in both Britain and the United States but in two remarkably different forms. In America it became trick-or-treat, with children going around the neighborhood demanding "treats" or they would play a trick on their unfortunate victims.

In Britain the idea of burning witches is retained in 'penny for the Guy," where children tour shopping centers with a "Guy" (usually some old clothes stuffed with straw), asking for money for fireworks.

In some areas they also go about the streets seeking wood for bonfires.

The reason these bonfires have been transferred from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5 is as follows. In 1605 Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, wanted to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament. Following ancient traditions, the parliamentary new year was at the beginning of November. Guy Fawkes and his comrades were betrayed and captured on Nov. 5, just before the state opening of Parliament.

Although it was decreed that the king's escape should be celebrated on Nov. 5, the fact that bonfires are used and effigies of Mr. Fawkes are ceremonially burned on them is a direct transfer of the celebrations of Halloween.

Guy Fawkes was in fact executed, by hanging, Jan. 8, 1606, nowhere near Halloween. Although there seems to be nothing sinister about the fireworks of Bonfire Night, the burning of Guys (witches) would appear to be another matter.

In some parts of Britain, trick-or-treating is also gaining in popularity.

The otherworld of Avalon

Apples and nuts were associated with Samhain. These represented the harvest, but the apple was also the Celtic fruit of the "otherworld," called Avalon, which means apple land.

For those familiar with English legends, this is also the place where King Arthur is said to be buried, awaiting a time of great trouble in England when he will arise and return as its sovereign.

Apples symbolized love, fertility and wisdom, and it is assumed that this is where the idea that the apple was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden originated. Games involving apples were played, duck-apple and snap-apple being two of the most popular.

Divination was also practiced using apples, which were supposed to reveal a future partner.

It was a popular time to marry. The hazel was the sacred tree of the Celtic groves, its fruit representing lovers and hidden wisdom. These too were used for divination. The hazel was the Celtic tree of life, growing by the sacred pool in Avalon.

Interestingly, in Rome the festival of Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees, also fell on Nov. 1.

A play for Isis

Further back in time, the autumn festival of the Egyptian goddess Isis comprised a passion play lasting four days. The actors impersonated the characters involved in the search for the body of Osiris, the goddess's dead husband, whose remains had been sent to various parts of the kingdom after his murder by Set. The priests performed gloomy rites, and the images of the goddess were shrouded in black as a sign of her mourning.

Samhain becomes Halloween

With the coming of Christianity, it proved impossible to wean people from these long-established festivals and superstitions, so they were adapted to try to make them more acceptable to Christians.

Samhain Eve was renamed All Hallows Eve, now usually shortened to Hallowe'en or Halloween. The custom of scaring away ghosts and evil spirits remained, with children roaming the streets in ghoulish dress and with turnip lanterns.

Nov. 1 became All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day, when departed saints were honored. This festival originally fell on Feb. 21 but was changed in A.D. 835 by Pope Gregory. Nov. 2 became All Souls Day, when all the rest of the "faithful" dead were remembered: the jour des morts.

This day was established in 998. The sacred fires were still lit but were claimed to bring comfort to souls in purgatory.

It always seems to me such a pity that, a few weeks-indeed this year just a few days-after the end of the Feast of Tabernacles and its glorious message of hope and true eternal life, Christians should be confronted with this pagan festival of the dead and its false doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

Perhaps there is a lesson for us in the Israelite agricultural year. By this time the "former rains" had softened the ground, and the wheat and barley were being planted. It was a time of new growth and of looking forward to the grain harvest in the spring, with all that represented.

Is this not a better message than that of Halloween?


A Year of Festivals, Palmer and Lloyd; Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition, Pennick; The Silver Bough, McNeil; Aquarian Dictionary of Festivals, Cooper; Book of Days, Chambers; The Year of the Goddess, Durdin-Robertson; Celtic Mythology, Proinsias MacCana.

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