The History of Samhain and Halloween

| 10/17/2014 10:39:00 AM

Many of the traditions that we associate with Halloween ­— including dressing up in costumes, going trick-or-treating and carving jack-o’-lanterns — are modern interpretations of Samhain (pronounced saw-win). Gaelic for “summer’s end,” Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival celebrated from sunset on October 31 to sunset on November 1; this falls about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. The festival marks the end of harvest season and the beginning of the darker, colder half of the year. During Samhain, people bring cattle down from their grazing pastures and choose which animals to slaughter for winter. Households take careful stock of their pantries and food supplies in order to prepare for the long, cold weather ahead. Unlike the Gaelic festival of Beltane, which celebrates life and growth, Samhain honors the darker side of things.

Samhain is considered a “liminal” time, as it straddles the line between the abundance of summer and the harsh realities of winter. The liminality associated with the evening of October 31 creates a window during which some people believe spirits can easily enter the world of the living. Believers think that during Samhain the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and deceased family members and friends can return to their previous homes to bestow gifts or seek revenge. To appease the wandering spirits, the Celts would place a dinner plate at their table and bowls of food or treats by their front door. People took special care not to offend any wandering spirits, and if they left their homes they would disguise themselves with masks and costumes to avoid recognition. Eventually the tables were turned, and the masked citizens started imitating the spirits they once feared by going door-to-door demanding treats and threatening to perform mischief of their own.


Large fires were lit on hilltops to protect the community from wandering and unpredictable spirits. It was said that the fires mimicked the sun and also helped hold back the darkness of winter. The bones of recently slaughtered cattle were thrown into the fire, and hence the term “bone fire” was coined, which eventually turned into the modern word “bonfire.”  This protective fire was carried around by community members and mischief-makers alike by placing a hot coal inside a hollowed-out turnip, potato or beet. These makeshift lanterns were frequently carved with creepy faces to represent and scare away the wandering spirits. The term “jack-o’-lantern” comes from an old Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to lore, the drunkard Stingy Jack tricked the devil into never condemning him to Hell. When Jack died, however, God wouldn’t allow such an unsavory soul into heaven, either, so Jack was sentenced to eternally wander the Earth with nothing but a coal nestled inside a hollowed-out-turnip for light. The Irish referred to Stingy Jack’s ghost as “Jack of the Lantern,” which eventually became “jack-o’-lantern” as we know it today.

These vegetable lanterns took a modern twist when large numbers of Irish immigrants settled in the United States during the potato famine and discovered our native pumpkin, a vessel which is much larger and easier to carve than the turnip. Pumpkin carving eventually became so popular that American farmers began to breed varieties specifically for carving. Breeders paid special attention to pumpkins with thick stems, shallow ribs, thin flesh and large bodies. A few of the carving pumpkin varieties that have withstood the test of time include ‘Howden,’ ‘Casper’ and ‘Young’s Beauty.’ For tips on growing the best carving (or pie, or decorative) pumpkins, see gardening expert Barbara Pleasant’s article “All About Growing Pumpkins.”

Foods for Thought (And Divination!)

Divination and ritual have been a part of Samhain festivals since ancient times. Because the veil between worlds was thought to be at its thinnest on October 31, people would play divination games in an attempt to predict their future, specifically future events related to death and marriage. One particularly quirky divination game was called “Pou (Pull) the Stalks.” In this game, eligible young men and women were blindfolded and led to the garden, where they would uproot a kale stock. The piece of kale was thought to determine characteristics about the participant’s future husband or wife. One would hope for a tall, healthy piece of kale that tasted sweet. The amount of dirt clinging to the kale stalk was believed to represent the size of the dowry — a clean root represented poverty. Kale has been ridiculously trendy lately, between kale chips and kale smoothies, but perhaps its true popularity was during ancient Samhain divinations games. Who knew?

The song below, which is excerpted from Halloween: A Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear, breaks down the rules for “Pou The Stalks.”

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