Halloween: An Origin Story
The Pagan Beginnings of a Modern Holiday
It’s that time of year again. That period in late autumn when everything is dying. The leaves on the trees turn their majestic yellows, oranges, reds, and browns and wither away. The days are getting ever shorter. An almost ethereal fog overtakes the morning chill. And there’s the specter of menace seemingly at every turn. All culminating in one of the most profitable and definitely spookiest of holidays: Halloween. We know what it is today but how and where did it start?
According to ancient Celtic beliefs, October 31 was the end of the year. Upon sundown, the world of the living merged with the world of the dead. They called this Sauin, or the Feast of the Dying Sun.
Sauin began in the darkness and mystery of that most spectral night. The darkness only to be broken by the lighting of a huge bonfire that heralds in the new year and all of the promises of abundance that come with it. From the first bonfire, runners formed torches and lit other bonfires bathing the ancestral lands in an ominous glow.
The line separating the world of the living from the world of the dead has been crossed however and from October 31 until midwinter the darkness has been strengthened. Ancestors long since departed of this world return and walk the earth and those from the living world may find themselves lost in the confusion of time and space; of life and death.
From these mysterious beginnings comes Halloween, the night of spirits, specters, tricksters, and the dark machinations of modernity.
Time: the Parade of Darkness
The originally huge bonfire was not only intended to symbolize, celebrate, and purify the new year. The flames of it were also used to bless the boundaries of houses and fields. Stones placed within the heart of the fire acted as an oracle of sorts, foretelling life and death. As the fire faded the presence of evil that has emerged into this world gathers around.
From the festival of Sauin comes the practice of trick or treating. While modern trick or treating is a fun time for kids to show off their costumes and receive delicious sweets, the origin is much different.
On the night of Sauin the poor would go door to door and demand food and drink. To avoid the destruction of their bodies and souls they would wear macabre costumes to better blend in with the spirits that roamed the night.
Sauin: Lust of Darkness
The anonymity of disguise, darkness, and fantasy of Sauin has always ignited certain debauchery in its revelers. To this day Halloween is a veritable feast of the senses that often gives way to a sacred union at the altar of flesh. While today few, if any, see it as poetic or romantic as that, it wasn’t always the case as Sauin in ancient times was three to seven days of chaos and debauchery.
Shepherds and workers that had migrated for the abundant season returned home at Sauin where they met at great fairs of drunkenness and debauchery. At these fairs, the workers and maids who had been isolated from each other for months by then were given their pay for the months that they had worked and proceeded to buy frivolously, drink to drunken stupor, and have indiscriminate intercourse in full view of the fairgoers.
Apples of the Future: Ancient Practice, Modern Tradition
During Sauin, with the merging of the two worlds, prophecy and mysticism were more prevalent than at any other point during the year. Because of this, many used these annual occurrences to search for their future spouse. The more modern traditions of bobbing for apples and snap apple are holdovers from ancient times when the apple was the symbol of Celtic love goddesses. While it’s merely a fun diversion these days(or at least as recently as “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”) in more ancient times the first person to grasp the apple with their teeth would be the first to marry the following year.
In Wales, vegetables were used during Sauin in hopes of the divination of future husbands. Nine maidens would gather in a kitchen to make a nine ingredient pancake. Vegetables were used as since they are from the earth they would provide the magic of the earth to the spell being cast.
The ritual meal complete, the nine maidens would then dream erotically if their future husbands.
In some areas, it was thought that if the ritual had generated enough powerful magic that the husband would manifest in the waking world and not just in a dream.
From Pagan to Christian
The early Christian missionaries found it difficult to convert the ancient pagan believers and thus then decided to slowly merge the faiths together with an eye on eventually converting the non-believers. Ancient pagan sites became sites where early Christian churches were built.
Scottish Gaelic for “going to church” is in fact sill translated as “going to the stones”, the stones being a reference to ancient pagan sites of worship. The feast of mid-winter thus became Christmas, the Feast of All Hallows/Saints was then placed on November 1st. All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween then was observed on October 31st, with November 2nd being reserved to celebrate the dead who have not yet reached Heaven.
Beggars and children went from door to door to pray for the households' deceased ancestors in exchange for soul cakes. After receiving their cakes they would then take them to the local priest who would bless them as a means to purify and then pray for those from the households that had died to escape from purgatory.
Don’t Chase the Dead
While families would hope for the souls of dearly departed ancestors to visit their homes in other places with a more dark history the spirits rise in other ways. The ancient Celtic goddess of Cailleach was thought to rule both the summer and the winter. By striking the earth with her wand, the ground would then become barren and freeze thus destroying all that was built during the warm months and bringing forth the lean months of winter.
Winter goddesses were both worshipped and feared. Worshipped because winter is a necessity to bring about spring and ultimately summer. Feared for their ability to destroy with their icy spells of winter darkness.
The early Christians sought to separate the two faces of Cailleach and then associated the summer side with Mary, mother of Christ. The winter side was thus conflated with the devil. Those that continued to worship both were then labeled as witches.
The Twilight of Tradition?
The modern concept of Halloween is most definitely a uniquely American tradition. Like most things that remain timeless, it’s the same but ever so changed to keep up with the times that it exists in. While few of any of those that celebrate Halloween believe exactly in what the ancients did is inconsequential.
For by continuing to celebrate the holiday is to celebrate the ancients and by celebrating in much the same as our ancestors from so long ago, it is to give them an immortality.
After all, what is Halloween but a celebration of the immortality of the soul? Both the beautiful and the profane can coexist in this world no matter how brief a time.
That is the beauty of Halloween — it is an all inclusive celebration where none are excluded. Not the living nor the dead.