Before Hallowe’en, there was Samhain (pronounced Sawin). This refers to a Celtic/Gaelic festival that marked the transition into the colder part of the year, the dark half. Celtic people counted a day as sunset to sunset, so the celebration for the festival would start at sunset on 31 October. This festival marked the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, and traditionally would last for three days.
Samhain was of importance in Ireland prior to the Celtic arrival, as can be demonstrated from some Neolithic passage tombs. The passage at the Mound of Hostages at the Hill of Tara, for example, is aligned to sunrise at Samhain, and is 5000 years old, considerably prior to Celtic occupation in Ireland. The hill of Ward, Tlachtga, in County Meath, Ireland, was a traditional spot where Samhain celebrations were held. Archeologists have found evidence of large fires and burned animal bones at the site.
Samhain is believed by many to have been the Celtic New Year. As the day began in darkness (sunset) so the year began in darkness (winter). As the year moves into winter, consequently this festival was geared towards the dead as much as it was a harvest festival, and many of the traditions surrounding Samhain dealt with spirits.
Samhain was first mentioned in Irish literature from the tenth century. References say that portals to other worlds would open on Samhain. Old legends often had important events occurring at Samhain, such as the story of Fionn MacCumhaill fighting a monster who would come from the other world to burn down the hall at Tara every Samhain. As the world entered winter, the sun god Mog Ruith would go to the world of the dead (the realm of the god Donn) at Samhain.
Samhain was seen as a liminal or threshold time, being timeless in that it was neither summer nor winter. The Celtic otherworld was believed to exist alongside the world of humanity, so at Samhain the two worlds converge, making our world accessible for fairies, spirits, and souls of the departed. The sidhe (shee) were fairies, and legend said that the mounds where they lived (usually ancient burial mounds) would open, and anyone who was there would see the Sidhe coming and going, and see their fires and activity within the mound.
Many rituals are associated with Samhain. The main aspect of this festival was the lighting of bonfires. These fires were seen as cleansing, and protecting against evil forces. They would be lit on the top of hills, and in some rituals two fires might be lit, with people then walking between them for protection and blessing. In some circumstances people might put out the fires in their homes, and then take fire from the bonfires back to relight their own hearths. Another customer involved walking around the houses or fields with the fire, again as a form of protection against evil forces.
As the souls of the dead were thought to enter the world at Samhain, the feasting would usually involve setting places for deceased relatives and inviting them to join the feast. Offerings would be put out for the spirits to appease them.
Another ritual involved ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’. The people would dress in costumes and go door to door, reciting verses in exchange for food. In Ireland in the nineteenth century there was the tradition of the Lair Bhan, or white mare. One person would dress in a white sheet with a horse’s skull on top, and lead others who would blow horns from farm to farm. Farmers who did not provide food should expect bad luck in the coming year. The purpose of wearing costumes or disguises was so that the spirits and souls who were thought to come out at Samhain would not be able to identify and kidnap you. Pranks might often be played, with the fairies being blamed for these.
The people would carve out turnips to act as lanterns, often carving faces into them as a further deterrent to evil spirits. These became known as Jack-o-lanterns. Later pumpkins would be used instead.
These traditions can easily be seen as the origin for Hallowe’en trick or treat.
Early Christianity tried to convert established pagan holidays into Christian ones. So 1 November became All Saints Day, with All Souls Day following on 2 November. This is why Hallowe’en has it’s name (from All Hallows Eve.)
Many current Hallowe’en pastimes have become quite sanitized. Costumes often involve fairy tales and super heroes rather than any truly scary ‘guises’. Trick or treat does not involve tricks any more (as this might be illegal) and just involves giving young children sweets in those areas that celebrate this. The adults might have parties and watch scary movies. It is interesting, though, to see how these modern pastimes have very ancient roots going back for thousands of years. Perhaps we are not as modern as we might believe.