I know it is hard to imagine, but for many hundreds of years, this holiday we are about to celebrate was not called Halloween. Right now we take for granted that October 31st means witches and goblins, costumes and candy, pumpkin carving and apple bobbing.
And to some extent, this date has always been about those same themes, but under a different name, and with a different understanding. And today we are going to talk about the pre-Christian history of Halloween and learn about where this tradition comes from.
You have already experienced a little piece of this through the apple ritual that DeAnna lead us all in, the pagan holiday of Samhain existed long before anyone spoke the word Halloween. Paganism is inherently hard to talk about, because it’s really more of a modern way to think and talk about a wide variety and huge diversity of quasi-spiritual and religious communities that existed in Europe before Christianity displaced them.
One of the pagan groups that we know the most about are the Celts from Ireland and they are the pagan community that most scholars believe the Samhain tradition originally derives from, and can even find official records dating it as far back as the 10th century.
Now the first thing one needs to know if they are going to try and understand the pagan belief system is the wheel of the year. This wheel of the year represents the pagan conception of time, and the major difference between the way they thought about time and the way we think about time is that to pagans, time was circular and to us, time is linear.
That is, we talk about things like timelines, that represent the idea of time as a straight line from the beginning of history past the present and points out at the future that we are moving towards. But a pagan understood time to move in a cycle that literally was repeated every year. Each year was not a new year, but yet another trip through the same cycle of the seasons. And the wheel of the year, as they understood it, had eight spokes, spaced at relatively even intervals through out the year, which were marked by community wide festivals. And these eight festivals were broken into two alternating groups, the lesser sabbats and the greater sabbats. And of the four greater sabbats, two in particular were considered the most important, and these were the two that marked the move into either darkness or light.
The holiday of Beltane marks the return to lighter days, but it should be no surprise that today’s celebration, Samhain, marked our descent into darkness. It was the end of the harvest and indeed any food that had yet to be harvested by Oct 31 was left in the fields as a sacrifice to the gods. And because it was the beginning of the descent into darkness, it was also considered to be the Celtic New Year’s Day.
Remember, this was a system built on cycles. Besides the seasons, the other major cycle that marked people’s lives was that of the sun. It made sense that the day was started in darkness and born into light, because that was their experience of the sun rising out of darkness to each morning, and so they postulated that the year’s cycle also began in darkness and was born into the light, rising out of the final day of the cycle, October 31st.
And finally, the reason this celebration on the evening of October 31st was so important was that this special moment of the year starting anew, this first darkness, was not a part of the year’s cycle, this one evening was different, special, it literally existed outside of time. There was the cycle of the seasons, and then there was sawhain. And on Sawhain, since it was a time outside of time, the veil between possibility and impossibility was at its thinnest, so thin it was practically non-existent.
And there were many implications of this thinness, but one was that it was the easiest day of the year to talk with one’s deceased ancestors, especially those that had died in the past year because the pagan’s believed a deceased soul waited in a purgatory like place until Samhain when they could begin the transition to the true afterlife and the thinness of the this night meant a reunion was quite easy. And so tradition had it that if you had lost a family member in the last year you should make a lighted path from the grave of the departed to the family’s house, often gourds were hollowed and carved in order to protect the lights on the path.
Eventually Christianity found its way to northern Europe, with its penchant and skill for digesting and incorporating native celebrations into its own rituals in order to convert new groups to the faith. The common pattern for this process was that the native ritual would continue on in terms of content, but the meaning of the content would be changed to fit Christian teachings. And the movement from Samhain to Halloween is among the most perfect examples of this phenomenon.
Here is what happened. The traditional Christian understanding of death was different form the pagan understanding in that it held that after death a soul went either to heaven or hell. And it was palatable from a Christian perspective to honor the souls that went to heaven, but certainly not those that went to hell. And in Samhain all spirits, no matter how they lived their life, were fair game to be visited and honored, they lacked this two-tiered afterlife system. So the holiday of Samhain, under Christian influence, was re-named or re-branded as: all Hallows Eve. To ‘hallow’ literally means to make holy or sacred. Thus the meaning was changed from the Sawhain tradition of all souls being honored, to just the souls that were sacred, that is, went to heaven.
Besides the name change and the difference in ancestor worship, very little else changed. People continued to view the night as particularly spooky, people continued to carve gourds and put candles in them. And as the holiday grew up within Christianity, sometime around the 16th century people began carving turnips, placing candles inside of them, and dressing up, or guising as evil spirits. They would go door to door and in order to protect their houses from these evil spirits, treats would be presented to them. So all the same themes were still present, but the focus shifted from celebrating all ancestors to celebrating the saints and fearing the sinners. Same content, new meaning. The process was complete.
And in that ritual switcheroo, that these days we would probably call misappropriation, we lost the original meaning of this day, that it represented this special moment, outside of time, where the boundary between the possible and the impossible were so thin that they were permeable. What would it mean if we still believed this? If we approached this holiday as a time to think about the impossible things that we would like to accomplish in the coming year?
I hear so often how impossible it is to make the kind of change so many of us think our planet desperately needs. And I am a big believer in the idea that if you ask for your limitations, they will be yours. So, this continued reminder of Samhain, that sometimes the universe is ripe for impossibility to break through, is one I think we need to find a way back to.
And I have to say, if there were a time in the 35 years that I have been walking this earth that feels like it is a time of thinness between the impossible and the possible, it is right now. We are living some truly remarkable days right now. Entire countries that have spent decades being told that freedom was impossible, have stopped believing that narrative and taken sudden and decisive steps in a new direction. And here, in our own democratic experiment of the United States, citizens have stopped believing that making a real change to the direction of our country was impossible. These are truly remarkable times we are living in.
And I want to invite you, tomorrow evening, when the last sliver of light has set on this Celtic year, and the darkness from which a new year can be born fully descends on you, and you are in that special time outside of time, to allow your impossible to cross over into this world of the possible. Stop believing in whatever limitations you have for too long saddled yourself with, and take a look at the year ahead of you for just one night with an eye towards accomplishing the impossible. Because why bother with anything less? Ashe and may it be so.