From ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us.
—from an old Scottish litany
History traces this holiday back to the ancient Celts of Ireland, who were a people of very spiritual and superstitious nature. They were very conscious of the spiritual world and had various ways of attempting to gain access to it – many times because they wanted their 300+ gods to help them win battles.
The Celts had two main feasts in which they honored these gods, one taking place at the beginning of Summer and one at the end. The feast of Beltane occurred on May 1, and Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween) on November 1. Of the two, Samhain was the time when the division of the physical world and the spiritual world became very thin, allowing for supernatural forces to be at work and ghouls and ghosts could roam freely.
“During this interval the normal order of the universe is suspended, the barriers between the natural and the supernatural are temporarily removed, the sidh lies open and all divine beings and the spirits of the dead move freely among men and interfere sometimes violently, in their affairs” (Celtic Mythology, p. 127).
Celtics priests who carried out the rituals were called Druids. They would perform their acts in open air surrounding a bonfire, of which the term originated, offering sacrifices of crops and animals (and occasionally humans) in order to placate the gods and frighten away the evil spirits.
When Christianity was introduced to parts of Europe, missionaries attempted to blend Christian principles with pagan rituals in order for the religion to be better understood and integrated in a society. Halloween has since become a confusing mixture of traditions and practices from various pagan cultures.
Trick-or-Treating can be traced back to Samhain in this way. It was said that on this day, spirits of the dead would rise from their graves and try to return to their homes. Frightened villagers would attempt to appease these wandering ghosts by offering them fruit and nuts, and began a tradition of placing plates of their finest food on their doorsteps.
While not terribly frightened of their lost loved ones, the “others” were to be feared. If the souls of the good could rise, those of the terrible could come to wander as well, and the villagers feared that treats would not suffice for such terrible spirits. The only solution they knew to do would be to masquerade as the demonic and hope to go unnoticed. They cloaked themselves in masks, blackened their faces with soot, and donned other disguises to appear as devils, imps, ogres, and other demonic creatures – thus the tradition of dressing up for “Halloween” was born.
After the potato famine in Ireland, thousands of Irish poured into America and brought their traditions with them. One such was the Jack-O-Lantern, which was the ancient symbol of the damned soul. Originally the Irish would carve out turnips or beets as lanterns to represent the souls of the dead freed on this night. Evil faces were carved in the hopes that the true demons would be frightened away after looking upon something as fiendish as itself. The houses where the lanterns were placed would be spared of evil. While the new Irish immigrants of America could find no turnips to keep this superstition alive, they discovered pumpkins in abundance and made their ghoulish lanterns from these.
While my family never carved Jack-O-Lanterns or participated in Trick-or-Treating activities, I now know that my future family will not be practicing many of these traditions, either. It may not be the evil holiday that some claim it to be, but neither is it rooted and grounded in the Word. Happy All Hallows’ Eve – may we remember our ancestors by keeping the truth of their rituals alive.