Nowadays, Halloween is in many places wrongly considered an American invention. While it is true that the way we celebrate Halloween today hardly has anything to do with the traditions of our forebears, the roots of these customs reach back into prehistory. The name “Halloween” (“all hallows even”, the eve of All Saints Day) does stem from the Christian era, but the origins of this festival are significantly older and can be found all over Europe.
It begins with the date: on October 31st the Celts celebrated Samhain, the Feast of the Dead; a magical time, which was also the year’s ending. The Scandinavians knew the Alfáblót (“the sacrifice of the Elves”), a festival during which the deceased ancestors were commemorated. Similar feasts can be found in the Slavic world, where the “Evenings of the Ancestors” called “Dziady” were celebrated in the spring and autumn. The Balts even dedicated a whole commemorative month to the honorable dead, in which they invited the dead into their homes.
Already then, people assumed that in the time between autumn and winter, the borders to the hereafter and to the otherworld blurred leading the spirits of the dead to a more uninhibited wandering here on earth, then in the rest of the year. The apparently modern custom of today’s children going trick-or-treating from house to house, dressed as monsters or the undead also has its origin in these ancient European ritual customs and festivals. Oftentimes young adolescents, dressed in wooden masks and painted faces, deterred or welcomed the wandering dead, sometimes embodying their deceased ancestors whilst asking for gifts. Food offerings were made to them and in some places an extra place was set at the dining table to welcome the dead.
The widely spread tradition of the Jack Lantern has its origin in these times: for the dead to find the way back to their resting place, lights were lit to guide them home. In the British Isles, turnips were hollowed out and carved to serve as lanterns, looking a lot like today’s pumpkin heads.
Another important element, which has faded nowadays, were large sacrificial fires lit in the autumn months, especially in the pastoralist communities of early Europe, which were dominated by livestock. In October, the herds were driven from the higher summer pastures down into the valley, where it was decided which animals were to be kept over the winter and which were to be slaughtered. In great rituals, these were then sacrificed to the gods and ceremoniously eaten. The custom of piling up the bones of slaughtered animals into large piles and ritually burning them is still reflected in the English “bonfire” (bone-fire).
About the author
Postmodern skald, looking for echoes of the eternal gods in germanic myth and poetry.