The ancient holidays follow the rhythms of agrarian life—of planting and harvesting, sewing and reaping. In the age of the Celts, Samhain (said SAH-win, meaning “summer’s end”) was a special time for celebration. It marked the final season of harvest and the time for preparedness against the oncoming winter months. But it also held strong ties to magic and mystery, which linger yet today.
The Celtic peoples, who at one time ruled most of Europe, held beliefs that are remarkably similar to some of the theories being posed by quantum physics. Simmering down the mind-stretching twists of quantum physics offers this nugget: life exists in multiple layers of reality that can occupy the same space without interacting except at pivotal moments of collision between “planes.” A collision of planes is one theory offered for the beginning of “The Big Bang.” To the Celts, this phenomenon happened quite regularly, though in a much more mundane fashion. When the two layers of existence touched, people could comingle with magic of the “Otherworld.”
Unlike the Greek “Underworld,” where the dead reside, the Otherworld is filled with magical beings, both human-like and non-human. From this realm come the treasure trove of stories of the faerie (in Ireland, they are called the “shee”)—elves, sprites, trolls, gnomes, and many more. To the ancient Celts, Samhain marked the time of year when the veil separating the two worlds grew thin, and the faerie might walk upon the earth equally with mankind. It was a dangerous time for those uninitiated in the ways of the shee, who might beguile mortals into entrapment in the Otherworld for seven years or more.
As Christianity spread through Europe, the magical peoples of the Celtic world became increasingly demonized, and the thought of having goblins and gremlins walking the earth in the lengthening dark grew to terrifying proportions in folk culture. Priestesses of the Goddess were deemed wicked witches, and hair-raising tales were told of their magical potions and devilish spells. Added to that were superstitions about black cats, ghosts, and other ghoulish creatures. Samhain was no longer a turning of one year to the next for, as it had been for the Celts—it was a time of bewitching and spookish pranks like the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.
Supplanting the ancient Samhain rights, medieval Catholicism offered celebratory alternatives. Celtic holidays always spanned three days, so overthrowing the Celtic New Year took a bit of extra effort. November first became “All Saint’s Day,” in honor of both patron saints and worthy martyrs, and November second became “All Soul’s Day,” in honor of those who had departed. But still, the magic of the last day of October pulled at the memories of folk culture, especially in the British Isles.
The Christian calendar is heavily based on the Roman system, which puts the New Year in the middle of wintertime. Equally so, the Roman day starts in the middle of the night. The Celts had a different opinion about when things started and ended, with the end of the year at the end of summer and the end of the day at sunset. Therefore, to properly celebrate a holiday beginning November first, the festivities commenced on what the Romans called the evening before. Since All Soul’s Day was also called “All Hallows,” the night before was “All Hallows Evening.” This can be shortened to “All Hallows E’en” (think British accent)—Halloween.
Now, if you were the sort of person who believed in spirits and lived in the rural English countryside with few good roads, no electrical lighting, and only your old gray mare to ride home in the gloaming (dusk), a few spooky sounds in the gathering mist might well spark your imagination. So, at some point in the history of Halloween, a tradition developed to outwit the lurking demons. If mere mortals disguised themselves as witches or fairies or spirits, then perhaps they could fool the real ones. Keep in mind, this was still very much a holiday for adults, with undertones of real danger. Bonfires were lit on hilltops in an effort to keep ill wishes and presences at bay. It also happened to be a convenient way to dispose of Black Death victims—the original word being “bone-fire.”
On All Soul’s Day, it became a traditional practice for groups of folk to trek from house to house, caroling:
Soul, a-soul, a soul cake
Please good missus a soul cake
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry
Any good thing to make us all merry
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for He who made us all.
Soul cakes were a type of moist bread with currants, and upon receiving the token food, the singers promised to pray for the departed souls of the family and offered blessings and wishes for growing prosperity.
As people of Celtic ancestry immigrated to America, they brought many of their folk ways with them. Out on the prairie, young men would play pranks on each other during this season—dismantling wagons and re-assembling them atop barn roofs. Later, some would take apart model-T cars and put them back together inside a small space (like a dorm room) or other such less-than-convenient place. Farm wives attempted to thwart such behavior by offering baked “treats” to their neighbors in exchange for not being the victim of a prank.
But Victorian culture was fast demoting folk traditions from the lived world of adults to the world of literature for children, and with this came many of the traditional holiday activities. Soon, treats were offered in an effort to keep the windows from being soaped or other silly behaviors, hence the offering of a choice between “trick or treat.” Children also embraced the idea of dressing as witches, devils, or ghosts (one has to find a way to be a little naughty sometime), which are traditional costume choices still today, though the repertoire has been widely expanded.
Carving turnip lanterns morphed into carving pumpkins into Jack-O-Lanterns, perhaps in honor of the Jack in folktales who was always getting in and out of trouble with giants, magic fingers, and flying boats. Ghost tales continue to thrill children and some grown-ups, as do candied apples, roasted pumpkin seeds, and spice cake. It is a great pity that the fear of ill-intended tampering has moved the giving of treats to children away from these agrarian harvest foods in favor of commercial candies. Homemade popcorn balls or soft pretzels are healthier and full of more love than an artificially flavored lollypop.
This Halloween night, think on the ancient rights of Samhain—summer’s end. And maybe, as the owls hoot or the wolves howl in the woods, you’ll find just the right time to share your own spooky story or memory of Halloween pranks amidst pumpkins or gravestones. Catch a mug of hot cider, sing a song for those who have gone before us, and maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com