Summer is well and truly behind us, a summer unlike any that we’ve had before, and winter is ahead; we’re at the conduit between the seasons, a junction that was highly significant to our ancestors in what we now call Halloween.
Halloween hasn’t always been Halloween, it used to be called Samhain, pronounced sow-inn, originating from Celtic Paganism. The dying of the season, trees going dormant and harvest behind them, was thought to be the time of the year when the veil between the living and dead was at its thinnest; because of this relatives and friends who had passed that year were invited to share in the festivities, food was left around in case they were passing through. It was a time of honouring the dead, a time of the celebration of life and death and the link between the two. The symbolism of the passing of summer into the darker days of winter is hard to ignore; the trees display echoes of the summer just gone which fall to the ground, you can stand looking one way and see the vibrancy and health of summer and the other to see the desolate beauty of winter ahead. Fires were lit to symbolise the warmth and light of the sun and people would take the flames of this bonfire back to their homes to light their home fires from the communal one, cementing their reliance on each other. In the homes rosemary, the herb of remembrance, would be displayed wafting its evocative scent.
Samhain has some great stories. Such as, Aillen, a fire breathing harp playing underworld being, who lulled everyone to sleep with beautiful music and burned everything down, Fionn mac Cumhaill was able to stay awake and slay Aillen with a magical spear. In another, the same Fionn slays another underworld being but gets his thumb caught in a burial mound door; he puts his thumb in his mouth and, because his thumb has effectively been in the underworld, he’s bestowed with great wisdom. This is a parable about gaining wisdom from ancestors. The stories have a liberal sprinkling of creatively scary monsters, such as a headless woman dressed in white who chased people accompanied by her trusty pig; and a shape shifting creature called Pukah who demanded parts of the harvest, flame eyed horses, a group of kidnapping hunters called the Faery Host, and the Sluagh silently entering houses to steal souls.
It wasn’t all serious introspection and scary monsters though, rituals were performed in the guise of games, the results were meant to nod towards the player’s future. Apples were peeled in one go; when the peel was thrown over the shoulder it was said to land in shape of the first letter of any future partner. Apples were associated with the otherworld and immortality and were involved in a few traditions such as apple bobbing and a similar unfathomable game involving a revolving stick with an apple and candle attached. Hazelnuts were also a significant food that were related to divine wisdom, and another signifier of a good romantic match. In one nut game/barbecue, two hazelnuts were roasted at a fire and named as the person roasting them and the person they fancied. If, while roasting, the nuts stayed still and quiet, then this was a good sign for the match; if however the nuts jumped away from the fire then it was bad news. These days we have dating apps, back then it was roasting hazelnuts.
Trick or treat has its origins in the old ways of Samhain. People used to go from house to house dressed up as the mischievous spirits that emerged through the thin veil between the worlds asking for food. They lit their way with a carved turnip or the magnificently named mangel wurzel (a type of beetroot) that had been hollowed out and used as a lantern. Of course, today turnips have been replaced by pumpkins, as the tradition migrated to the Americas, so it evolved; the carved gourds are shown in houses that have treats for todays mischievous spirits dressed as anything from Wonder Woman to Harry Potter.
This Halloween will be very different to many of the Halloweens and Samhains that have gone before, but it always comes back. Winter will come and go and summer will return; but for now we are on the cusp of winter when the Pagans thought we were closer than ever to our ancestors. So, I for one will be thinking of them this year and doffing my hat as they pass through.