It is always interesting to delve deep inside of a custom and pull it out by the roots. When we do that we can peer back to a different age and catch a tiny glimpse of our ancestry and at times we may be surprised by what we find. There are customs we practice today for fun, frolic and perhaps a bit of mayhem that were very serious business to our ancestors. They did not have the luxury of the scientific explanations we have today. Ghosts, spirits, good and bad, vampires, witches and other ghoulish creatures were a very real belief in many cultures. The long dark cold days of winter struck fear into the hearts of many and people took whatever precautions they could to protect themselves, their homes and their loved ones.
The Celts celebrated Samhain, which we now call Halloween. I touched on this in an earlier article, “The origins of Trick or Treating.” A short recap, Samhain celebrated the end of long, warm summer days and signaled the coming of the dark, cold winter days ahead. It also marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. This night, they believed, the veil between the worlds was the thinnest and good and evil spirits would crossover to the mortal world. People would welcome the good spirits, their family members that had passed on and ask for guidance and protection and divination. Keep in mind, to them it was not a tale or a spooky story. This was a firm system of daily belief.
On this night they would celebrate with a huge bonfire and the lighting of this flame was sacred. Young people would travel inside the community from home to home to gather food and kindling for the festival. The fires in individual hearths were extinguished and everyone gathered together to celebrate. Since the belief of spirits crossing over to the world of humans was so prevalent they were fearful of evil spirits that might cause them harm or trouble. Some people went so far as to cover themselves in animal skins or disguises to confuse the spirits that might otherwise bedevil them.
People young and old brought a symbolic or personal item to be burned in the fire with the belief the sacred flame would offer protection, give guidance and bring good luck. Crops and the bones of the animals that had been culled were burned in the blaze as well giving it the original name of bonefire, meaning fire of bones, which brings us to today and the term bonfire.
At the end of the celebration it was considered good luck for the coming year and protection of the family, to take home a burning ember from the sacred fire to relight the hearth in their own homes. They hollowed out gourds or turnips in which they carried this burning ember as a guiding light in the dark night. ~ Sound familiar?
On the following day, the ashes from the sacred fire was spread over the fields for luck and to protect against any misfortune that would cause the next season’s crops to fail.
I appreciate you taking the time to read the snippets of history about Halloween. We practice many customs throughout the year without knowing why or where they originated. This is an ongoing series to bring you a bit of history on each holiday in hopes of entertaining as well as inspiring you to look deeper into your own roots and family customs. If you have ideas or questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.