Druids and Halloween
Celtic Origin of Halloween
Today's jolly holiday with carved pumpkins, parties, costumes and happy children ringing doorbells and demanding candy has its origins in the mists of Europe's ancient Pagan past. There is a direct connection between the modern celebration with its costumes and jack o'lanterns to Druids and Celtic mysteries.
The Celts, who once occupied much of Western Europe were, by the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, pretty much holed up in what was then the edge of the civilized world on the British Isles and in Ireland where Roman historians had a chance to observe and chronicle their religious festivals. We have some very reliable accounts from such sources as Julius Caesar, who observed Druids in action in Gaul, and Pliny the Elder, Tacitus, and others who had almost first hand experience of them in ancient Britain and Ireland.
According to Caesar's observations the Druids were a priestly class, exempt from war and taxation who officiated over sacrifices and served as judges in criminal disputes and who memorized a complicated oral history and spiritual tradition -- training for which could last up to 20 years. They were the carriers of law and culture from one generation to the next.
The Celtic Religious Calendar
There were four major annual festivals in the Celtic religious calendar, marking major passages of the seasons and of the agricultural year. These were Imbolc, which celebrated Spring, Beltame, the great Celtic May festival, Lughnasadh, the harvest festival ushering in autumn, and Samhain, celebrated on October 31st, which marked the beginning of winter and ushered in the dark months when the sun's rays grew weaker, the days shorter and the nights longer.
Though co-opted by Christianity and re-named " All Hallows Eve" or " Hallow'een" in an attempt to downplay the Pagan origins of the holiday and shape it as an intro to the Christian feast of All Saints Day celebrated on November 1st, modern Halloween is the direct descendant of the ancient Celtic Samhain. It's witches and goblins and carved pumpkins have nothing to do with Christianity, and everything to do with druids and the ancient Celtic religion.
18th Century Engraving of Two Druids
Samhain marked the end of the Celtic warm season, or summer and the beginning of winter-- a hard time for iron age farmers. It came after the harvest and was the time when animals were culled in order to thin the herds and provide meat for the winter. It was also, for the ancient Celts, a time of tremendous spiritual energy when momentous events could occur and when the ordinary laws of time and space were suspended. At Samhain the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead, not to mention the world of spirits and demons, was at its thinnest and it was possible to commune with the dead and for ghosts and demons to enter the world of the lliving.
In an iron age farming community, thoughts turned to death and getting through the winter to greet the renewal of spring. It was a time of ritual meetings and sacrifices presided over by Druid priests. Druids were especially associated with Samhain, their spiritual powers being deemed necessary to control the supernatural energy generated by the time of year.
The Celtic pagans believed in re-incarnation and the existence of various nether worlds and realms beyond. Samhain as a time when demons and the souls of the dead could penetrate the boundary between worlds and walk among the living, was momentous exciting, and dangerous.
Huge bonfires andl feasts featuring slaughtered animals and autumnal nuts and fruits were part of the holiday observance. Celebrants wore ritual costumes and masks in order to ward off stray demons and not draw their attention. Druids were central to these celebrations as their spiritual energy was necessary to control the demonic energies and keep order in the world.
Even after Christianity triumphed over paganism and the old Celtic Samhain was incorporated into the Christian calendar as All Hallows Eve, in Ireland and Scotland, where remnants of the old Celtic observances survived, the customs of bonfires, dressing up with masks and costumes, ghosts, demons,and the thinning of the veil between worlds on October 31st survived.
Halloween in Scotland and Ireland was a folk festival, distinct from religion, whose origin was lost in the mist of time, but which was an important cultural icon. This folk tradition crossed the Atlantic in the mid 19th century with Scottish and Irish immigrants to the New World. Halloween found a warm welcome and a new home in the cultural melting pot of America, As so often happens, America added its own touches to the holiday and claimed it as its own. Trick or Treating, Mischief Night and the tradition of special Halloween candy and Halloween as a night for adult costume parties became the American contributions made over the years.
A Video History of Halloween
Today, Halloween is a secular festival featuring costumed children ringing neighborhood doorbells and being rewarded with candy and fruit. It is also a night when adults dress up in costume too and attend parties and when pumpkins are carved into Jack O' Lanterns and fires are lit, marshmallows toasted and apples bobbed for.
It is an odd twist of fate, that in The United States Halloween is more universally celebrated than All Saints Day, and has been for the past century. There is also an irony in the fact that the American form of Halloween celebration has been exported back to the Old World where more and more children are ringing doorbells and saying " trick or treat" on October 31st.
Perhaps the Druids really did know how to part the veil of time. If so, they must enjoy the irony of it all.