Historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while “[s]ome folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, [it is] more typically [l]inked to the celtic festival of Samhain or Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in)”,4 which is derived from Old Irish and means roughly “summer’s end”.4 A similar festival was held by the ancient Britons and is known as Calan Gaeaf (pronounced kalan-geyf).
Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise showing a Halloween party in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832. The young children on the right bob for apples. A couple in the center play a variant, which involves retrieving an apple hanging from a string. The couples at left play divination games.
The celebration has some elements of a festival of the dead. The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honoured and invited home whilst harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces.78 Samhain was also a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames.9 Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual.
On All Hallows’ eve, many Irish and Scottish people have traditionally placed a candle on their western window sill to honor the departed. Other traditions include carving lanterns from turnips or rutabagas, sometimes with faces on them, as is done in the modern tradition of carving pumpkins. Welsh, Irish and British myth are full of legends of the Brazen Head, which may be a folk memory of the ancient Celtic practice of headhunting. The heads of enemies may have decorated shrines, and there are tales of the heads of honored warriors continuing to speak their wisdom after death.
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