Member Mumbles

Member Mumble: Leanne van Kampen

Perfectly timed is our first member mumble of the year: Leanne van Kampen tells us all about Halloween and its origin. What is the connection between Samhain and Halloween and why do children go about collecting candy and dressing up as scary ghosts? Leanne recounts the Celtic traditions and how they turned into the Halloween celebrations that we know and enjoy today.

It’s October and you know what that means: cosy sweaters, falling leaves and, of course, Halloween. The word Halloween itself is a contraction which started out as ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, meaning All Saints’ Evening.

Halloween originated from a Celtic harvest festival called Samhain (/ˈsaʊ.wɛn/). Meaning ‘summer’s end’, Samhain was celebrated on October 31, marking the end of summer and harvest, and the beginning of cold, dark, death-foreboding winter. For the Celts, it was the beginning of the new year, and they believed that the veil between the material (earthly) world and the Otherworld would thin on Samhain, letting spirits through. So, on October 31, they celebrated the return of the ghosts of the dead to earth. Some people might have wanted to hide their presence from the spirits, and those people would wear costumes to disguise their identities. Ironically, those Halloween costumes were later used to reflect the spirits themselves. The spirits, or ghosts, were both respected and feared and that’s why people would leave offerings of food and drink outside for them. Sometimes, bonfires were also lit during Samhain, originally lit to protect people from the cold of the winter or to aid the dead on their journey, and later serving to keep ‘away the devil’. Families would also partake in certain festivities that were especially intended to tell one’s future. These festivities went from apple bopping to dream interpretation.

Rituals involving apples possibly originated from the Romans. After the Romans conquered Celtic territory (43 A.D.), two Roman festivals were combined with Samhain: Feralia, a day to commemorate the passing of the dead, and one to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, especially apples.

During the 8th century, the Christian Church absorbed, or adopted, Samhain as a Christian celebration, making it the day before All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day. The name Samhain rapidly got overshadowed by early variations of ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ to distance the Christian Church from pagan celebrations. Only in Gaelic and Welsh speaking regions the name ‘Samhain’ kept on existing. Some scholars believe the Christian Church absorbed Celtic festivities such as Samhain to make the Celts’ conversion to Christianity a bit easier.

From the 16th century, the festival included (at least in Ireland, Scotland and Wales) going door-to-door in costume/disguise and reciting verses in exchange for food, a.k.a. trick-or-treating. Christianity had a tradition called ‘souling’, which was comparable, but children would collect soul cakes (raisin bread) in exchange for prayers while going door-to-door. The children would carry lanterns made from of hollowed-out turnips that possibly represented the souls of the dead.

It was only after the mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century that Halloween became widely celebrated in North America. It started out as a celebration for children, getting bigger and bigger, and gaining more popularity among adults during the late 20th century.

Nowadays, lots of countries (mostly wealthy Western countries) celebrate Halloween with creative costumes, horror movies and lots of candy. So whether you want to protect yourself from winter and evil spirits or just celebrate a new season with family and other loved ones, Halloween is the way to go.