Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Halloween & Samhain - The Celtic roots of modern Halloween custom


Halloween and Samhain are often thought of as the same festival, which is an easy assumption to make considering they are held at the same time of year, and both are celebrations of the dead. 

Halloween is a festival concerned with warding off evil spirits and remembering the dead, and Halloween traditions are believed to have originated from the earlier, Celtic fire festival of Samhain. 
Samhain marks the end of the harvest and the end of summer; a time when everything is dying and we're about to enter the colder, darker part of the year, when the veil between this world and the next is thinnest. 

Many of the old rituals, like leaving sweets on the doorstep to appease mischievous ghosts and spirits, have become modern customs. 

Bobbing for apples has its roots in scrying and divination. The Celts saw the apple as a representation of the Goddess, and over time it became an object that could determine marriages. A bobbed apple placed under the pillow of a girl would elicit dreams of her future husband. 

Dressing up, or 'guising', at Halloween comes from the notion that disguising yourself will prevent harm from wandering spirits. Mischievous spirits could play tricks on the living, so it was advantageous to 'hide' from them by wearing a costume. Guising at Halloween in Scotland is recorded in the 16th Century, and later recorded in other parts of Britain and Ireland. It was first recorded in North America in 1911. 

Since the Middle Ages 'mumming' on certain holidays has existed throughout the British Isles. Mumming involves going door-to-door in costume, performing short plays in exchange for food or drink. At Samhain people may have impersonated spirits and received offerings on their behalf, with the belief that impersonating these spirits would protect them from them.


The Church also contributed to Halloween celebrations with an activity called 'souling'. A person would go from house to house asking for cakes ('soul cakes') in return for praying for the souls of those resident in the house, which was popular during the later Middle Ages. 
In my house we celebrate Samhain, but we do provide sweets for the children that are Trick-or-Treating.

There are many references to guising, mumming and souling at Halloween throughout Britain and Ireland in the 18th and 19th century, although the belief is that it is extremely unlikely that the modern custom is directly related to these old customs. 

Do you observe Halloween, Samhain, or both? 

Halloween is catching on here in the UK. as a commercial festival, despite its roots originating here.


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