Wailing ghosts, shrieking bats, witches riding across the sky? How did this candy-coated, fright-night of a holiday come about? Exploring Halloween’s history offers an adventure in cultural archeology, for conflicting traditions have veiled the origins of this magical night. Let’s lift the veils and explore.
The Celts of Northern Europe believed in an Earth goddess and many gods, and in nature spirits or fairies they called the sidhe, and in an afterlife ruled by children. On Samhain, or Summer’s End, people gave thanks for the year’s harvest and for the long winter’s rest ahead. That night, the thin veil between the living and the dead lifted so that the sidhe could arise and roam about freely as they had in life. People lit huge bonfires to ward off fairy kidnappers who were said to fancy the loveliest lads and lassies. Others danced about with Jack-o-lanterns, trying for a glimpse of a dear departed one among the sidhe. At heart, Samhain celebrated Earth’s fertility in a night of imaginative communal excitement. With the work of the year done, people could release their wild natural passions and openly face their terrors of death.
For the Christian church newly settled in Rome, however, this holiday was not at all to their liking. Fairies, fertility rites, female deities as well as male? Indeed! Little by little, the church discouraged Celtic traditions and beliefs. In 700AD, Christians renamed the holiday All Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en, a solemn night before a full day of prayer, All Hallow’s Day.
Yet the spirit of Samhain still haunts Halloween. Today children and adults roam about in costumes and celebrate without knowing exactly why. Though we may think of ourselves as separate from nature, the old magic lives on, despite every attempt to weaken the meaning of the holiday. Perhaps we have an inborn need to connect with nature’s wild and magical laws, which operate intelligently no matter what we do. A greater, more generous intelligence is at work, one vaster than we can imagine.
A Celtic fairy kidnap tale: Connla and the Fairy Maiden:
Onmy CD, The Girl Who Said NO!
A Halloween cat story: King of the Cats
Another tale of a fairy kidnap: Tamlane
(both from Joseph Jacob’s Fairytale collections)