It is All Saints Day, All Hallows, the ancient new year festival called Samhaine, which is usually translated as “end of summer”. Last night was the All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowe’en, a new year’s eve in former days with all the sweet treats, riotous good fun, and debauchery that entails. This is one of the few clear remnants from at least one of the cultures we now name “Celtic”. The word, Samhaine, shows up in the Late Roman Era luna-solar Coligny Calendar, a five-year calendar that tied the sun and moon cycles together in one coordinated whole. Samhaine falls at the end of growing season months in the preserved fragments of this calendar. It may not have been 1 November, but it was this late autumnal time of year.
The timing can also be deduced from myth. Many events happen at the autumnal new year. The Good God, the Dagda, and the Dark Mother, the Morrigan, conceive creation on this night each year. Samhaine is the beginning of the new year and the end of the old one. But the night in between the old and new is no time at all, and as such it is a delicate time, not this, not that, a time when The Other can bleed through the cracks in this in the betwixt and between. Many traditions still practiced today, thousands of years later, are firmly rooted in the precautions my ancestors took to keep harm away from the hearth.
Leaving sweet treats out for the Good Folk (the faeries, the land spirits) morphed into souling, children going around, singing and collecting “soul cakes” and coins for the recent dead, those stuck in Purgatory. Soul cakes were handed out any time from the end of the harvest to Twelfth Night. But the souling attached to Halloween morphed into the ambulatory begging with an edge of menace we now name Trick-or-Treat — which was exactly what it was millennia ago. If the Good Folk were not appeased with their favorite treats — sweet cream and cakes — there were very serious tricks played. Spoiled milk. Butter turned rancid. Mice let into the grain stores. Livestock let out of the byre. Candles and hearth fires that spit devastating sparks. Children taken from cradles and replaced with monsters. Though, admittedly, this last happened any time of the year and probably reflects our ambiguous relationship with toddlers more so than any fraught time of year. (I’m fairly certain I had a changeling for a couple years with each son.)
Masking and fancy dress — especially cross-dressing and wearing clothes backwards and inside-out — were also prophylactic traditions. If one had to be abroad in this perilous darkness, it was best to do what you could to confuse the night predators. Keeping iron or mugwort in your pockets, placing clover in your shoes, carrying lighted ragwort stalks and candle-filled turnips — all these things, along with a good number of cantrips muttered while crossing the threshold, were protective measures taken on this night. Stepping through a door is perilous at the best of times. On this between night, you risked inadvertently inviting the unsavory Others in to bedevil the house. Of course, land spirits, being discarnate beings, you had no notion of if or when they might be clinging to your garments like fen vapors. Best to take precautions as a matter of course.
When Rome regulated much of the Gallic and Gaelic world, the new year moved to 1 January, and with it quite a number of the Old Europe new year practices. But Rome didn’t conquer all, so now we have extra new years in the calendar. In addition to Samhaine and 1 January, there is reason to believe that the Nordic and northern-most Germanic peoples celebrated the new year at various times throughout the year, most often around the vernal equinox like much of the world (including Rome originally). But there may also have been new years at the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. All these times share a particular liminality and so could be dangerous, thin times that invited the Other to cross. However, even with all these other dates pulling on the New Year, the insular Celtic-speaking peoples and the Germanic-speaking peoples who moved in with them over time preserved a fragmented memory of Samhaine, the end and the beginning of time each year. So much so that the Catholic Church felt obliged to do something to explain the annual celebrations of the numinous and mysterious at this particular time.
Now, it wasn’t all devils and malevolent sprites who could cross over. If there was a thinning to the Other World, it stood to reason that those who were on the far side of death might also be able to return during this nebulous night. People took precautions against the incursion of the malicious beings, but they didn’t shut the door completely. They left candles burning in western windows to guide loved ones back home, west being the commonly agreed upon direction one travelled to arrive at the Land of the Dead. They prepared altars and feasts of all the favorite things of their departed family members. They gathered the living around the hearth and regaled the dead with entertaining song, dance, and all the news of the past year. The recently dead were said to especially want to hear of births and marriages that had happened after they left this realm. Grandma was seated at the head of the table with a plate of the best morsels, just as she had when inhabiting a human body.
This celebration of the longed-for dead was what the Church co-opted. First, they tried to control the tenor by excising Grandma and instead naming the day in honor of All the Saints. Most people ignored this change. They lit no candles (one of the principle revenue streams for the local clergy). They remained in their homes and did not attend special masses (another revenue stream) lest they miss their loved ones when they came to call on this the only night it might be possible.
Eventually, Rome relented and gave the pagans their own day of the dead — All Souls’ Day. But Rome insisted that All Saints’ Day take precedence. It came first in the calendar, on the First of November, the original Samhaine. All Souls’ Day was fixed to the Second. So the peasants could feast with their former loved ones and yet still go and honor the Holy Ones. Thus 1 November is All Hallows’ Day. Over the centuries that hallowed day has reverted to its native form, a new year. And the preceding eve is once again an in between time laden with all the magnificence and mystery of being undefined. Today, there is less note of All Hallows’ Day, but we still celebrate Hallows’ Eve, Hallowe’en.
Centuries later, a further entanglement was added when the Church was exported to the Western Hemisphere with the conquistadors. Many Central American Indigenous peoples celebrated a day of the dead very similar to Samhaine (most cultures do, after all), complete with music and feasting with their former loved ones. This holiday was not in November; it seems to have been around May Day. It also involved worshipping deities that were substantially less than Church-sanctioned. So to break the connection with tradition, the Mexican Church imposed their own Day of the Dead upon the conquered people. They moved the date of the celebration to the by then largely forgotten All Souls’ Day, 2 November. This is one imposition that probably didn’t bother many of the indigenous common folks too much because their former overlords required rather taxing sacrifice on the native day of the dead. Following the Church allowed the peasantry to retain their holiday without sending their young folks off to the sometimes literal slaughter.
(Though… I have to take a break here to say that rumors of human sacrifice are greatly exaggerated, coming as they do from those with the clear intention of demonizing those they would subjugate — for their own good, you see. For one thing, where are the piles of bones associated with sacred sites? For another, any group of humans that routinely kills large numbers of its breeding population and labor force is going to run itself extinct. So it really doesn’t make sense and is not very evidence-based. However, it is a titillating tale that still accords with that original agenda… so it will persist…)
In any case, the ancient end of summer for North Europe took on another layer with skeletons and bright flowers. It’s also likely some of the European traditions — like masking and mischief — were incorporated into the Central American Day of the Dead. The result is a conflagration of color and light and spectacle — and of course fantastic food! And, yes, this includes a good deal of sugar.
Meanwhile in the north of this continent, the Germans and Irish and Scots brought their All Hallows’ Eve to the colonies, much to the chagrin of the Puritans — who seem mainly to have been anti-happiness. For the Protestant immigrants, this holiday incorporated the new element of Bonfire Night, a night given over to denigrating all things Catholic represented by the unfortunate figure of Guy Fawkes who was burned in effigy — along with the pope, cardinals, witches, and just about any other hated symbol. Bonfire Night was a night of mischief. But at least it was sanctioned, being nominally anti-papist. There were worse things happening on the Eve of All Hallows’.
Even as early as the 17th century there are laments about the antics of dissolute youth on Hallowe’en and sneering at candles lit for the ancestors. Now, yes, there was reason to complain about the mischief. Young folks could inflict quite a lot of damage on their elders and the generally despised rich. (And make no mistake, the Puritans were wealthy!) The kids would pull pranks and run off laughing into the night and then blame it all on the Devil — at least as motivating force if not acting completely on his own. But much of the rancor was not directed at the broken fence posts and wax-filled locks. The thing that really irritated the Elders was the hoi polloi taking time off from their Puritan-directed labors to have a bit of fun. And most hated of all was the tradition of divination that was tied to this holiday.
As a thin time, new year festivals allow the living and mundane to see into hidden time — the past and the future. The Protestants firmly objected to this. The sects that came to this continent largely believed in a fixed fate written in the hand of their deity — one in which they were the most-favored chosen, of course. Any attempt to gainsay god by divining — literally, being god — was a deplorable sin, not least because the lesser souls were questioning the Puritan hierarchy in the process.
Worse in the eyes of the Elders, much of the divination was practiced by young women who were anxious about their future. Having no control over their mundane lives, they turned to the supernatural from time to time to at least be prepared for the path laid before them by their male kin. In doing so, they were tacitly challenging the order imposed upon them. Fathers had utter control of their daughters’ bodies, and as such used them as property, trading on their procreative potential and labor to increase familial wealth — which of course accrued to fathers and husbands. Any sign of feminine disobedience was harshly quashed. So the Hallowe’en attempts to see into the future — just to see, never mind affecting anything — were dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly.
There are reasons to believe that the Salem “witch” fiasco began as a group of teen girls engaging in folk magic primarily aimed at learning the names of their future husbands. Upon being discovered, they covered up their deviant divining with terrible and surgically precise lies, lies their male elders were predisposed to believe with little questioning or rational logic, lies that these girls knew would be met with swift violence. Many of these girls paid for their lies with a lifetime of severe mental illness. Their victims paid with their livelihoods and lives. Most of the men, of course, suffered no consequences except perhaps a few sub-par meals, if recorded accounts can be believed.
But Halloween survived even in darkest Massachusetts. By the 19th century, tea leaves were being read even by the wealthy, more for the thrill of it than to gain information. Though there was still a desire to know matrimonial futures. (A constant agony for young women throughout the ages of patriarchy!) But the pranks became epic. My favorite tale — which is probably apocryphal as it seems to take place in communities from Ireland to Missouri — was moving a carriage indoors by taking the contraption apart and reassembling it in the middle of the room while the rest of the household slept. Can’t say that I’d sleep through that level of disturbance in a one-room house, but it makes a fun tale. There are also stories told of cows being lifted onto rooftops and locks being filled with molten metal and whole fields of corn transplanted miles away overnight. Makes the modern toilet paper and egg pranks seem distinctly lacking in imagination.
The last chapter in the origin story of Halloween was a reaction to these pranks. Concerned elders — this time the mothers — sought to redirect all this destructive energy. One might have thought that cutting the sugar would have been a good first step, but no. They went the other direction. The night was given over to the treat-begging that had evolved in the original new year celebration. Anoka, Minnesota claims to be the first community that put on a Halloween celebration including trick-or-treating to divert the kiddies from their pranking. But, of course, the entire history of Halloween is tricks and treats — as is the focus on discarnate others. However, that focus has narrowed as we centered on the treats that originally served as bribes dissuading malevolent beings from their tricks. Now, we only think of the dark side and the benevolent side has largely been lost. There are vampires and werewolves stalking the streets. Zombies and aliens and ghosts are in the check-out lines at the supermarket. Witches and goblins cavort on porches. But the most fearsome of the lot is that most terrifying denizen of the shadow world, the hobo — the poor who refuse to be ruled by the rich.
But some of us still remember the dead. In particular those of us who come from or live with cultures who claim descent from the original Central Americans have incorporated Día de los Muertos into our Halloween. It’s common in New Mexico, for example, to set up an altar with marigolds and papel picado, burning candles and tres leches cake even as the kids go door-to-door begging for chocolate and sugar. It’s not uncommon to have a Dumb Supper before the Halloween costume party. It’s a truly multicultural festival with deep roots on both sides of the Atlantic.
A blessed Samhaine to you all!
©Elizabeth Anker 2021