History behind Samhain and Halloween

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The date October 31st marks a time when children and adults alike can don masks and costumes to appear much more of something sinister than anything out of normal daily life for one night, and one night only. But where did the Westernized celebration of Halloween come from?

Halloween (semantically Hallowe´en); All Hallows´ Eve and All Saints´ Eve are terms that describe the celebration of all things scary or, in death, and the macabre. Roots go all the way back to the Celtic days where a festival known as samhain (pronouced - sa´an), from Old Irish samain, was brought about to celebrate the end of the harvest season and the coming of what has been regarded as the Celtic New Year, beginning Novemeber 1st. In traditional Gaelic Culture, the festival of samhain was a time whereby Celtic pagans gathered supplies and butchered enough meat from their animal stock to see them through the winter months. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, in which the bones of the slaughtered livestock would be thrown. The people would also wear masks in an attempt to either placate the dead or copy them so that they would not be harmed or made ill.

The Celtic people believed October 31st marked the day where the boundary between the living and the deceased broke open and allowed the dead to enter back into our world thus causing disease and sickness as well as crop damage.

Versions of these celebrations and festivals were brought here to the Americas by Irish immigrants during Irelands Great Famine of 1846.

Often regarded as paganistic, Halloween has its roots in Christianity as well and connected to All Saints Day. All Saints´ Day goes back to where various northern European traditions held religious festivities until Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV moved the old Christian feast of All Saints Day from May 13th, which in and of itself had been the date of the pagan holiday Feast of Lemures, to Novemeber 1st. Both Halloween and All Saints´ Day occur one day apart in today´s terms, but the holidays were once celebrated on the same day. In the 9th Century, this day was measured by the Church starting at sunset, in accordance with the Florentine calendar.

The term Halloween was created by shortening All Hallows´ Eve. Both even and eve are abbreviations of evening, but Halloween gets its name from “even” because it is on the evening before All Hallows´ Day, which is also known as All Saints Day.

Halloween´s symbols also go back to the Gaelic culture where Celtic people would place a skeleton, carved from a turnip or rutabaga, on their window to represent the departed. Believing our heads were the most powerful part of the body, containing both the spirit and knowledge, the Celts used the head of the vegetable to frighten off any superstitions.

Symbolism also stems from Welsh, Irish and British myth surrounding legends of the Brazen Head, which may be remnants of folk memory of the widespread ancient Celtic practice of headhuntung where the results such hunting practices were often either nailed to a door lintel or brought to the fireside to “speak” their wisdom.

The term “jack-o-lantern” can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, who was a greedy, gambling and hard-drinking farmer. As the legend goes, one night while Jack was at a local public house, he ran into the Devil himself and made a deal with him to where he sold his soul for one last drink. Immediately the Devil turned himself into 6 pence, enough for the one last drink, but Jack took the coin and placed it into his pocket next to a silver cross instead of paying for the drink. The Devil could not change back because of the cross. Jack refused to allow the Devil to go free until he agreed to not lay claim to Jack´s soul for another ten years.

At the ten year mark of the deal, the Devil made paths with Jack again while Jack was out walking on a country road. The Devil, trying to collect upon what was due, made Jack think quickly. Jack said, I´ll go, but before I go, may you get me an apple from that apple tree over there. Jack tricked the Devil into climbing the tree and then trapped him by carving crosses all round the trees trunk. Jack now forced the Devil into agreeing to never take his soul.
The Devil, having no way out, reluctantly agreed.

Jack eventually passed away and went up to Heaven´s Gates and was denied access because he had been deceitful along with leading a life of drinking and gambling.

Having been denied access to Heaven, Jack went down to the Gates of Hell to see if would be allowed into Hell. The Devil had to keep his promise of never taking Jack´s soul, thus turning him back the way he came.

The path back was windy and very dark and Jack asked for a light to help guide him. The Devil, in one last gesture, gave Jack an ember from the fires of Hell which Jack then placed inside a hallowed out turnip so that he could hold it to light his way back.

Jack is now forever condemned to rome the Earth with the lighted ember burning inside his hallowed out turnip.

In America, the carving of pumpkins is associated with the legend of Stingy Jack because pumpkins were not only readily available but much larger, making them easier than turnips to carve. Many families that celebrate Halloween carve a pumpkin into a frightening or comical face and place it on their doorstep after dark. The tradition of carving pumpkins is known to have preceded the Great Famine period of Irish immigration though. The carved pumpkin was originally associated with harvest time in general in America and did not become specifically associated with Halloween until the mid-to-late 19th century.


Traditional Halloween characters include the Devil, the Grim Reaper, ghosts, ghouls, demons, witches, pumpkin-men, goblins, vampires, werewolves, zombies, mummies, skeletons, black cats, spiders, bats, owls, crows, and vultures; which all became the imagery surrounding Halloween itself by nearly a century of hard work from American filmmakers and graphic artists to commercialize on the dark and mysterious.

The two main colors associated with Halloween are orange and black.

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Tnformation was provided from www.novareinna.com/festive/jack.html and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween.