October, this wonderful month of mists and mellow fruitfulness, ends with Halloween, when children (and let’s face it, plenty of adults) all over the country dress up as ghosts, vampires and witches and celebrate with parties, trick or treating and hollowed out pumpkins grinning ghoulishly through darkened windows.
What’s it all about? It’s a modern festival that seems almost, well, pagan. So how did Halloween come about?
It all started with the ancient Celtic people, once found all over Europe. They had a festival called Samhain, which fell on the day that marked the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. Since they were pastoral people, it was a time when cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures, all livestock had to be secured and crops were harvested and stored. The date marked both an ending and a beginning and the festival that celebrated it was the biggest of the year.
The Celts believed that this transition between seasons was also a bridge to the world of the dead, when the souls of those who had died during the year passed into the otherworld. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables and lit bonfires in honour of the dead, to aid them on their journey.
Samhain became the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. In an effort to wipe out this pagan holiday, the feast of All Saints, honouring every Christian saint, was assigned to November 1st, intended to replace Samhain forever. But the powerful symbolism of the travelling dead was too strong. People continued to celebrate Samhain as a time of the wandering dead, but under the Christian influence the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil.
The name came about because All Saints Day was also known as All Hallows, so the night before, when dead souls roamed, became All Hallows Eve, then Hallows Evening and eventually Halloween; an ancient Celtic festival in contemporary dress.
And the pumpkins? We use them simply because October is when they ripen. But if you’re going to hollow one out for the children this year, do use the insides – the seeds and flesh are rich in vitamins and yet every year around 18,000 tons of pumpkins are wasted.