Halloween Special - Halloween Origins
Fire burn & cauldron bubble
The origins of Halloween are worlds away from Sarah Palin spookalikes, sexy cat outfits, jack o’lanterns and dooking for apples, as Jasper Hamill discovers
The war waged by Halloween on its Celtic relative, Samhuinn, has virtually erased the ancient festival from the public consciousness. In the United States, where All Hallows Eve has become a $2.5 billion industry, the most prominent pop cultural reference to its pagan ancestor is a film called Samhain, which advertised itself with the tagline: ‘cannibals wreck havoc on Jenna Jameson’.
Yet, despite its relative obscurity, Samhuinn (as it’s also known) is a festival with roots that stretch back to a murky pre-Christian past. Intended as an opportunity to reflect on the changing seasons and acknowledge death and birth, it was one of the many dates in the pagan calendar colonised by Christianity after Popes Gregory III and IV shunted All Saints Day from 13 May – itself a pagan holiday – to 31 October. For Gallic tribes, who viewed the year as divided into light and dark halves, Samhuinn was the equivalent of New Year. Celtic tribes held a feast on that day with places set out for their dead ancestors, using the event to tell stories about the dead and decide which cattle they would slaughter to eat during the winter.
Of course, all this has long been forgotten. In fact, even the Christian festival of All Hallow’s Eve has been muscled out of the calendar, replaced by a hyper-commercialised import. Real pagans are derisive of the new festivals, as John Macintyre, president of the Scottish Pagan Federation, who is sceptical of the ‘American party stuff’ that now prevails in place of Samhuinn, explains.
‘I have a strong prejudice against pumpkin lanterns, because as a child I had to carve turnips with my bare hands or bend all mother’s spoons,’ he says. ‘After hours of work I would end up with bleeding fingers and so I have a great worry that modern people have it easier.’
He continues: ‘Another obvious thing about pumpkins, unless they’re grown under glass, is that they don’t come from this country. They are imported at some ecological cost of food miles to make lanterns out of, whereas you can get turnips from the field and land around you.’
While pagans do not actively recruit, Macintyre reckons that celebrating Samhain could be a way of re-establishing our link with the land, which has been severed by supermarket shopping. ‘We are a part of nature whether we acknowledge that or not. I think celebrating seasonal festivals give you a better sense of the link between yourself as a human being and the land you’re standing on.’