Facts About Halloween
Halloween also known as All Hallows’ Eve, is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows (or All Saints) and the day initiating the triduum of Hallowmas, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast originally influenced by western European harvest festivals, and festivals of the dead with possible pagan roots, particularly the Celtic Samhain. Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Typical festive Halloween activities include trick-or-treating (also known as “guising”), attending costume parties, decorating, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films.
It was held on or about October 31 – November 1 and kindred festivals were held at the same time of year by the Brythonic Celts; for example Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany). Samhain and Calan Gaeaf are mentioned in some of the earliest Irish and Welsh literature. The names have been used by historians to refer to Celtic Halloween customs up until the 19th century, and are still the Gaelic and Welsh names for Halloween.
Samhain/Calan Gaeaf marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the ‘darker half’ of the year. Like Beltane/Calan Mai, it was seen as a time when the souls of the dead, and other beings such as fairies, could more easily come into our world. The souls of the dead were said to revisit their homes. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. However, harmful spirits and fairies were also thought to be active.
People took steps to allay or ward-off these harmful spirits/fairies, which is thought to have influenced today’s Halloween customs. In parts of southern Ireland, on the night of Samhain, a man dressed as a Láir Bhán (white mare) would lead youths house-to-house collecting food. Elsewhere in Europe, hobby horses were a part of other festivals. However, they may have been “particularly appropriate to a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad and could be imitated or warded off by human wanderers”.
The ancient Celts lit bonfires, which were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers and were used in divination rituals. This practice may have been Christianized with the rise of the observance of Hallowmas. However, other scholars argue that Hallowe’en bonfires are solely a Christian custom, rather than a Christianized one, with fire being used to scare witches of their awaiting punishment in hell. Indeed, in the 1500s, on the night All Hallows’ Eve, it was customary for one Christian to hold “a large bunch of burning straw on the end of a fork” while other believers “knelt in a circle around and prayed for the souls of relatives and friends until the flames burned out.” This was known as Teen’lay, derived either from the Old Irish tenlach (meaning hearth) or the Old English tendan (meaning to kindle).