Most of the young trick-or-treaters, prowling the dusky gloom on Halloween, don’t really care much about the background of the holiday/holy day they are celebrating. Dressed in various costumes as goblins and ghosts, heroes or old-time villains, these children unwittingly act out ancient traditions that began with a Celtic pagan festival some 20 centuries ago in Europe, and gradually evolved into the Catholic celebration on the eve of the feast of All Saints. Much of the tradition, however, is obscured by the relentless passage of time and fading memories.
One thing is certain about the celebration: the devil had no part in it. He was later added to the celebration gradually after St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in 432 A.D. Up to that time, the Irish and other Celtic peoples such as the Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Bretons and others had no notion of a devil in their worship.
But they did have a strong sense of an afterlife which as called simply “otherworld.” The Irish Celts called it “Tir na Nog” (land of eternal youth). It was a joyous place. It was more a land of enchantment and a paradise in the Western Sea.
Reigning over this otherworld was Samhain (pronounced “sow-en) who was known as the “Lord of the Dead.” But he had no relationship whatever to the devil.
Even today in Ireland, one of the Celtic countries where the ancient customs still survive, All Hallows Eve (Halloween) before All Saints’ Day is known as Samhain Eve. The following day marks the beginning of the Celtic New Year, Nov. 1, and also marks the end of the grazing season and the gathering of all crops for the winter.
According to ancient Celtic custom, all fires had to be extinguished and new ones lighted to set off a new year of abundance and light, and another victory for the sun over darkness.
For the ancient Celts, Halloween could also be a night of danger and dread as a time when otherworld spirits roamed freely. The Celts left “treats” on their doorsteps for the spirits of their ancestors, and carved out oversized rutabagas or turnips and placed a candle inside these “spirit lights” to guide their ancestors home. It could be a night of either happiness or discomfort depending on the relationship between families and their ancestors.
The spirits of the otherworld could also return to even an old score to demand justice for a previous injustice done to them. Hence the Celts began to wear costumes and masks as a way to hide from vengeful ancestors. It was also a time when the future could be understood by following certain practices such as bobbing for apples. When one was caught, the apple was peeled and the skins thrown over one’s shoulder. The peels were then supposed to indicate the name of a future spouse or other important information.
The Celts also believed that black cats crossing a person’s path would bring bad luck. The Celts believed the black cats were former beings who were changed into animals as a form of punishment for having done evil. The Celts also believed that spirits lived in the trees, and would, therefore “knock on wood” to assure that their good luck would continue. This may well be part of the understanding of the use of the term “the luck of the Irish.” But it was also used to explain away their great success as immigrants, especially in the United States.
Before coming to America as a holiday, Halloween had other religious origins. There is still much debate as to how the feast of All Saints came to replace the old Celtic festival. About 610 A.D. the Roman Emperor Phocas presented Pope Boniface IV with the Roman Pantheon-the temple where pagan Roman gods and goddesses were worshipped. The Pantheon was then rededicated under the title “Santa Maria ad Martyres” (St. Mary of the Martyrs.) The dedication ceremony was held May 13, and its anniversary was observed each year with great ceremony. Some historians consider this to be the origin of the feast of All Saints.
Other scholars insist that pope Gregory III originated the feast when he dedicated an oratory to all saints in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It seems that from this time on, at least in England, the feast was celebrated on Nov. 1.
However, noted scholar J. Hennig rejects both of these explanations and places the origin of the Nov. 1 date in Ireland. According to this theory, the feast passed from Ireland to Northnumberland in England, and then to the continent of Europe where other Celtic peoples would also align it with their New Year’s celebration. It should also be noted that at this period Irish missionaries had already begun their travels to England and the continent, and had great influence in church matters in that area.
Whatever the exact pagan Celtic or Christian origin of Halloween, we can thank their modern counterparts, the Irish and Scots-Irish for preserving such a joyful children’s feast.
The Irish were largely responsible or bringing their customs and celebrations to America in the mid-19th century when thousands of them crowded the shores of the United States following the Great Famine of 1847-50 in Ireland. They had spread their empire and customs from the islands of the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, and from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.
These energetic and inventive people have given the world a zest for living, an incredible supply of sages and legends and a great modern literature from writers such as Shaw, Yeats, O’Casey, Beckett, Joyce and others.
And also with all that, they gave a Catholic/Christian meaning to an ancient holiday and brought Halloween to America for the enjoyment of trick-or-treaters all over the land.
But they didn’t bring Satan or devil-worship to a joyous celebration of the Celtic New Year, Nov. 1.