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Samhain and Halloween: The Tangled Origins of These Holidays
Samhain, the Wiccan holiday that coincides with and bears a striking resemblance to Halloween, is arguably the sabbat that gets the most attention. A lot of information about it gets shuffled around in October, though it's shrouded in a hazy fog of misconceptions, propaganda and 'fakelore'.
If you think the misguided ideas about Samhain are limited to sources by people against Wicca-- think again! Some of the guiltiest culprits in distorting the holiday and facts about its history come from the most popular Pagan books and authors on the market. Many of the things modern Pagans like to believe about Samhain are as much of a fantasy as some of the horrible things we're sometimes accused of this time of year
Let’s try to sort through the development of Samhain, as well as its ‘sister holiday’, the secular American Halloween.
The Halloween Witch - The Stereotypical Image
What do you celebrate?
Where did Samhain Start?
The Murky Origins of Samhain
We barely have enough to go on to sketch even a rough picture of Samhain’s origins. It is likely that way back in antiquity, the Celts and Gauls of Northern Europe did call this time of year Samhain and observe the last harvest. The word meant ‘Summer’s end’. It was the gateway to the dark half of the year, when people began their winter preparations. The last of the crops came in, the livestock was brought down from the pasture, the animals not thought to survive were slaughtered.
That’s all the assumptions we can safely make. No matter what you’ve heard otherwise, we have no further factual information.
Common Samhain Myths
There are many ideas about Samhain in ancient times floating around—but none of them are evidence-based or well-sourced. It’s common claims, with authors continuing to quote each other, even though there's no way to verify the information. It's a case of people thinking, "Someone said it a long time ago; a lot of people have repeated it, so it must be true."
Common claims include:
- Samhain was a religious holiday and the Druids led rituals and processions
- Druids lit great bonfires to warn others that the veil between the world was thin, where people would come gather for protection
- Druids held sacrifices to the Lord of the dead (evangelical Christian-preferred version)
- Druids led rituals honoring the ancestors (Pagan-preferred version)
- people dressed in costume as a disguise, to fool evil spirits into thinking they were one of them
- people carved jack-o-lantern faces in turnips to scare away evil spirits
- people left food out for the dead to receive blessings and favors, or honor beloved deceased
- people left food out for the dead to appease them so they wouldn’t haunt their homes
Chalk these up to speculation at best, false claims and misinformation at worst. The Druids had an oral tradition, and we have no idea what they celebrated. There are no records from this time.
The earliest records come from the Romans and the Christians, who essentially were reporting hearsay. There is pretty good evidence that some of these traditions (the costumes, the leaving food out, the bonfires, the jack-o-lanterns) were started much later, and neither the Pagan Celts nor the Druids had anything to do with them.
Catholicism's Early Influences on Samhain
Ancient Pagans might have had some traditions around this final harvest season, but the vast majority were lost to time. The biggest influences that lasted came from Christianity. Particularly, the Irish Catholics made some big contributions. When the Christian religion spread through Rome, it assimilated many Roman festivals. One of these was Lumeria, when people exorcised evil spirits. In the 7th century, the Catholic church adopted the festival, declared it was also for blessing and honoring the saints, and called it ‘All Hallows’.
Christianity spread through Northern Europe, and customs began to merge. All Hallows migrated to November 1st. Some historians argue this was an intentional attempt at Christianizing the Celts; others argue that this is an illogical conclusion, since Christianity was already spreading very peacefully like wildfire. Since the feasts had been celebrated at different times in different places, it’s more likely that the Catholics were simply attempting to unify the observances on their calendar. This is how Samhain became tied to Hallow'een (All Hallow's Eve).
Catholic customs also brought us jack-o-lanterns, leaving food for the dead and trick-or-treating. For All Hallows, They used turnips as lanterns (they didn’t carve faces) to carry hot coals. This may have been done to ward evil, or as a symbol of souls being trapped in purgatory. They'd take the coals and went out to walk around in processions. This was called 'souling.' People would offer ‘soul cakes’ as the procession passed the house. It may have been as offerings for the spirits, or it may have been in exchange for prayer requests.
All Hallows was very popular by the 9th century. As Christianity became the dominant religion, people grew more and more superstitious about demons, evil spirits, devils and witches. These fears took root in the season more and more.
Guy Fawkes Night
After the start of the Protestant Reformation, many people began to shun the celebrations with Pagan roots, as well as most Catholic festivals. This is when Protestants began making their contributions to the seasons. Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated on November 5th with big bonfires, got tied into the development of this season, adding two distinct elements-- dressing in costume, and making mischief.
Guy Fawkes Night had nothing to do with the actual origins of either Samhain or Hallowe’en; it commemorated the arrest of Guy Fawkes in 1605 after Catholics failed in a plot to murder Protestant King James I of England. It became a public day of celebration, revelry and fun. Immigrants brought both Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes Night to America in the 1800s with a lot of romanticized folklore, customs and myths. The customs got tied together and took on new life in the new world.
American Contributions to Samhain
The folklore and festivities brought from European immigrants really caught on with the Victorians in America. Mainly it was the Irish-- the Irish loved to spin a yarn, and the Victorians just loved a good ghost story or ‘old world’ romanticized myth. They loved to entertain, so it was just one more excuse for a party. They ate up all the Irish folklore.
This interest sparked a lot of writings on the history of the Celts and Samhain. Most of these writings have been debunked now, however in the 19th century the published writings only served to fuel even more interest. From this interest, the American secular ‘Halloween’ was born.
The Victorian's love for spooky parlor games, divination and the occult also got tossed into the mix. Popular magazines about entertaining heaped attention on this season, commercializing the holiday with suggestions for parties and parades. Eventually in the early 1900s, trick-or-treating in costume became a tradition.
Devilish, Fun, or Devilish Fun?
Halloween Popularity Wavers
By World War II, people had other things on their minds and the festivities died down. Trick or treating slowed because with sugar rationing, people had no treats to offer. Some towns began to enforce strict curfews because children were getting too mischievous and wild on Halloween night— hidden behind masks they felt free to commit vandalism and other minor crimes.
It looked like Halloween was going to be a short-lived tradition lost in history, but in the 1950s it came back with a vengeance and exploded in popularity. Again, this was because of economic and commercial growth.
Through the 60’s and 70’s, Halloween continued to grow in popularity, but it started taking a lot of heat. By that time, the 'Satanic panic' had firmly taken hold. Religious evangelicals spread rumors of Satanism and false histories about Druids performing sacrifices. The horror movie industry perpetuated these notions in fiction, and mainstream media fueled hysteria about poisoned candy and Satanic Ritual Abuse (two conspiracy theories now debunked).
Despite all this, most people still saw the season as harmless fun and embraced it.
The Pagan Revival Popularized Samhain
The Pagan Revival
In the 1940s, Pagan Revival was really starting to gear up, most notably with the founding of Wicca. In Wicca, Gerald Gardner listed ‘November Eve’ as one of the four original major sabbats—a time to honor the dead and the dying Sun God. Eventually, the name Samhain was adopted as the name of the sabbat, as was a great deal of that fakelore that led Pagans to believe they were participating in an ancient Celtic festival.
Instead of villainizing the ancient Celts and Druids, however, Wiccans romanticized it as a spiritually significant event. Unfortunately, they were working with the now debunked writings.
Season of the Witch
When Halloween Met Samhain
By the ‘60’s, the Pagan Revival was moving to America. As the Pagan revival grew in America alongside its distant relative, the secular Halloween, there was a lot of interchange between the festivities. Many Halloween decorations and activities were perfectly in the spirit of Samhain. Pagan Samhain celebrations seamlessly blended in with the secular Halloween celebrations, so perhaps those ‘in the broom closet’ who normally felt isolated drew some comfort in the way the two holidays coincided.
Samhain’s popularity went beyond the Wiccan community and was embraced by many Pagans, whether they had any Celtic influences or not. It became a widespread communal festival, redefined and reinvented in the very late 20th century. More cultural influences were drawn into the festivities, as honoring the dead and harvest festivals are pretty common celebrations across the globe. Some inspiration was drawn from: Dia de Los Muertos (Mexican), Bon Festival (Japanese/Buddhist), Chuseok (Korea), Qingming (Chinese), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish), Calan Gaeaf (Briton), Parentalia and Pomona (Roman), Korochun (slovic).
Now, you’ll find Samhain is one of the most festive season of the year in the Pagan community at large. It’s a meaningful holiday, and doesn't have to be validated with ancient roots to be significant. No matter how or when it got here, it's here-- so enjoy it!
Stations of the Sun; Ronald Hutton
Halloween: Myths, Monsters and Devils (website defunct)
© 2013 Mackenzie Sage Wright