It’s a very strange spooky season. Seventeen days from now, we will celebrate a desolate Halloween, at best a sad, silent house-to-house celebration and at worst a nationwide super-spreader event. The rituals that marked shining moments in our childhoods might, for the most part, be gone, at least for a year.
But this is really nothing new for Halloween; while nowadays Halloween is synonymous with trick-or-treating and consuming far too much sugar, it was once a community gathering that strengthened bonds in the lead-up to the lean days of winter, one that provided fun, warmth, and stability in the uncertainty of a dying world.
Halloween is much older than we give it credit for; we can date it back at least two thousand years to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “Sow-win”), practiced in northern France, Britain, and Ireland. Samhain (or the day after it) marked the transition from fall to winter and the beginning of the Celtic New Year. In a culture obsessed with borders – between seasons, between villages, between the land and the sea, and between one world and the next, Samhain was especially momentous; it was a liminal period, a time of transition that broke down many of these borders. It was not only the seasons that were changing – this was a time when faeries and the spirits of the dead passed back into our world and walked the earth.
To prevent them from causing trouble, those restless spirits needed to be pleased and/or deceived: Celtic villages played games, Celtic women left out bowls of food offerings (presumably with unread “Take two!” notes attached), and those who ventured beyond the flickering lights of communal fires were sure to wear masks and costumes to avoid being pranked – or worse – by passing spirits.
While most of that sounds familiar, those communal fires take some deeper digging, and these fires, which today come to us in the form of Jack O’Lanterns, are the forgotten heart of Halloween – because even though Samhain was a holiday centered around the spirits and the dead, it was more a refuge for the community against the chaos of the world. In a ritual pregnant with meaning, the beginning of Samhain was often marked by the gathering of the entire area (sometimes on pain of death) at a massive communal bonfire, where the community performed sacrifices and held games. When the fire began to burn down, each family took a piece of the fire, returned home, and lit their own hearth fires with it. Those hearth fires, imbued with the spiritual protection of the community, would be kept continuously lit until the next Samhain. Embers from the sacred bonfires would be placed into carved turnips, making lights to guide the dead on their path through the world.
But fire wasn’t the only significant aspect of Samhain; by virtue of being at the end of autumn, Samhain marked the completion of the harvest, a crucial period in an age where nearly everyone was a farmer. The centrality of bringing in the harvest also meant that Samhain was a widely-recognized truce period in Celtic warfare, during which warriors could bring in food in preparation for a hard winter. Food gathered after the end of Samhain was widely distrusted; you never knew if a mischievous faerie or malevolent spirit had tampered with it as part of a New Year’s prank – remember, the end of Samhain marked a new year for the Celts.
That new year, like any new year, came with its own bundle of uncertainties, especially with the approach of winter and possible famine. With so much apprehension about the future, the Celts turned to prophecies, which were believed to be at their most accurate during Samhain. Later, during the Christian era, it was believed that a person could sit outside a church on Halloween night and hear the names of all the people who would die in the following year, and even later on, young women used a variety of rituals to divine the identities of their future spouses.
And so even though we won’t be able to traditionally partake in ordinary Halloween festivals, looking back at Halloween’s roots provides a better way to approach the coming holiday. Halloween doesn’t mean trick-or-treating. It means breaking through the barriers that normally divide us. It means strengthening the connections tying us to our friends, family, and neighbors. It means lighting the fire to warm us and give us the resolve to bear through whatever the future may bring.
Be safe, and have a happy Halloween.