Despite the commercial hype that now surrounds the festival of Halloween, the origins of the celebration of October 31st are, most scholars and historians agree, to be found in the Celtic and Druidic pasts.
‘Samhain’ was a Gaelic festival marking the end of the summer and the beginning of the darker half of the year, the winter, and was celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st. Like many of today’s Christian festivals, Easter for instance, the establishment and fixing of dates is often traced back to the decision of religious powers to adapt some ‘pagan’ and populist celebrations and incorporate them into the religious calendars. All Saints or All Hallows day is celebrated on November 1st – here in Spain, Dia de los Santos, is an important date – so October 31st also became known as All Hallows Eve, Hallows ‘Even, and influenced by Samhain the two were, over time, morphed into what is know today as Halloween.
Samhain is mentioned in some of the very earliest Irish literature, and was one of the four hugely important seasonal festivals along with ‘Imbolc’, ‘Beltane’ and ‘Lughnasadh’, also observed in Scotland and the Isle of Man with similar festivals in other Celtic hubs, in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. Samhain was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. Samhain was also seen as a time when the door to the “Otherworld” opened enough for the souls of the dead, and other beings, to come into our world. These could be friends of foes, and while many set a place at their table for family members who had passed over, others took precautions against harmful spirits. The latter is generally thought to have inspired the custom of dressing up, ‘guising’ on the night of October 31st, to confuse or scare off a wandering evil spirit. Fairies were said to be able to steal humans on Samhain, and fairy mounds were out of bounds on that night. If people had to walk at night they would perhaps turn their clothes inside out or carry iron or salt to keep the bad fairies at bay.
Guising, or dis-guising is also the origin of today’s more Americanised ‘trick-or-treat’. In earlier centuries on October 31st children in Ireland and Scotland would go from door to door disguised and perform a simple task, sing a song or recite a poem in exchange for a treat – then perhaps fruit, nuts, today it’s more likely to be sweets, but the notion of playing a trick on someone who didn’t hand over anything wasn’t really common until much later.
Turnip lanterns, the precursor of the pumpkin jack-o-lantern so common today, with faces carved into them, were common at Samhain in the 19th century in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. The purpose of these lanterns may have been threefold. They may have been used to light one’s way while outside on Samhain night; to represent the spirits and otherworldly beings; and/or to protect oneself and one’s home from them. Some have suggested that there were often set on windowsills to keep the spirits out of one’s home. However, others suggest that they originated with All Saints/All Souls and that they represented Christian souls in purgatory. It is generally believed that, as with many traditions that crossed during periods of mass immigration from Ireland and Great Britain to the Americas in the 19th and early 20th century, the traditional carved turnip was replaced by the pumpkin as they were more plentiful and easier to carve.
There are some traditional foods that are still served in Irish households on Halloween night. Barmbrack is a fruit cake with various objects baked into it, each with a different meaning for the person who is lucky or unlucky enough to receive that particular slice. A dried pea means you won’t marry this year, a stick means your marriage will be unhappy – your spouse will beat you, a piece of cloth mean bad luck or poverty, a small coin signifies good fortune and wealth and a ring means you will wed within the year.
Colcannon was another Irish favourite, made from mashed potatoes and kale (or cabbage), and could contain other ingredients such as scallions or spring onions, leeks, onions and chives. This would often be eaten with boiled ham.
Carmel apples, or toffee apples, apples covered in a hard toffee coating and placed on a stick, are another treat though these days are not specifically associated with Halloween.
Obviously nowadays there is a whole industry surrounding the commerical version of Halloween which produces sweets of all shapes, sizes and colours, even down to pre-pacakged Halloween sweet boxes in large supermarkets, including here in Spain.