Pranks, Revelry and Wandering Spirits: How Samhain Became Halloween and Halloween Became a Worldwide Phenomenon
For many adults of the 21st century who were teens in the latter part of the 20th, hearing a sequence of just 10 repeating piano notes could have them looking anxiously over their shoulders even now.
Halloween was the 1978 movie that introduced Jamie Lee Curtis to the world and inflicted Michael Myers and his notorious white mask upon a generation.
The mask might be the iconic symbol, but it’s the music that really made the film stand out.
Writing decades later, the film’s writer-director John Carpenter recalled the first time he showed the film to an industry executive.
I screened the final cut minus sound effects and music for a young executive from 20th Century Fox. She wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to ‘save it with the music.’
As well as being writer-director, music was also in Carpenter’s DNA—he had composed and performed the score for four earlier films—and while he is sometimes dismissive of his qualities as a composer (“I was the fastest and cheapest I could get,” he once said) there’s no doubt now, looking back almost half a century, that he succeeded absolutely in saving Halloween with the music.
Few people who sat (on the edge of their seat) through that movie will hear those 10 notes now without feeling at least tense or uneasy, and many will still be horror-struck.
The arrival of Halloween (and its long list of sequels) to cinema screens, with its bone-chilling score, its vile smiling pumpkins and its white mask, forever established the importance of this time of year in the public consciousness.
Halloween has come a long way, from old stories in the old world back on the old sod to one of western capitalist society’s most cherished festivals, tantalizing coffee drinkers with the promise of pumpkin spice for six weeks every Fall and enticing revelers all over the world into costumes and out of doors late on an October night.
Here we tell the story of how the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain became Halloween, and how Halloween became one of the world’s most beloved festivals, even if it does make you all too aware, for one night at least, of all the things that might go bump in the night.
The Ancient Origins of Samhain
Samhain (it rhymes with “plow in”) is an ancient Celtic festival celebrated to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
In Celtic tradition, darkness takes on a deeper resonance.
It is not just the absence of light. Darkness is rich in meaning and symbolism too. For many tribes and clans in the vastly disparate parts of western Europe now given the common label of Celtic—including Ireland, Scotland, Wales, parts of England and north-western France—the year began with the beginning of winter and the day began with nightfall.
Dawn, then, was not the beginning of the day. Dawn was already half-way through, and many interesting things might have passed in the night-time. For many in Ireland and the rest of north-western Europe, daylight is in such short supply for much of the year—perhaps just six hours in some winter months, and much of that might be a dull and damp sort of daylight—that darkness itself became something to be cherished, or feared, or both.
Samhain, literally meaning “summer’s end”, took place around the beginning of November each year, although for centuries its relationship to a date on the calendar would have been loose at best.
At this time of year, at the end of the harvest and the beginning of the long months of dark, damp and uncertainty, traditions dictated that the festival brought with it a closeness between the contents of this world and those of the next.
Celtic spiritual belief systems suggested that the spirits of all those who died in the previous year would pass over to the other world at Samhain, and therefore that this moment—the temporary opening of a door, perhaps, or the thinning of a veil—was one where the souls and spirits of the dead might roam freely amongst those of us still living.
This carried with it many Samhain superstitions, among them a vow to walk in the middle of the road in order to allow the spirits to pass without obstruction on either side.
As the centuries passed and the influence of the early Christian church became more widespread, important celebrations of the pagan year, such as Samhain, Imbolc and Yule, were incorporated into the Christian calendar of feast days.
Imbolc became St Brigid’s Day in Ireland, Yule’s celebration of the midwinter solstice was supplanted by Christmas, and Samhain—the first of November—was appointed as the Feast of All Hallows or All Hallows Day, a new celebration of all the saints of the church, and its accompanying feast day All Souls Day, when all the souls of the deceased could be honored.
The pre-Christian elements of the feast continued. Bonfires, festivities and old Celtic shamanic divination—channeling energies and soothsaying from the far side of the veil—continued to take place the night before, on what would become known as All Hallows Evening or All Hallows Eve.
All Hallows Eve would soon and forever morph into Halloween.
How Halloween Left Ireland on a Boat
We might never have had Jamie Lee Curtis, the Michael Myers mask or pumpkin spice but for events all the way over on the other side of the Atlantic in the 1840s.
A pervasive form of potato blight afflicted the crops of farmers all over Ireland and this, combined with rank mismanagement of resources by the British ruling classes in softly furnished mews houses in cozy Dublin, caused the event which has shaped Irish history more than any other.
The Great Famine, which began in 1845, reached its nadir in “Black ‘47” and continued until the early 1850s, led to the deaths of an estimated million Irish people, and an estimated million more fled the country for the chance of redemption overseas.
Many of those made the arduous crossing on the McCorkell Line’s north Atlantic routes to destinations as far apart as Newfoundland in east Canada to New Orleans in the southern US.
For many, New York, Boston and Philadelphia became their new home, and they brought with them the traditions of their old one. The festivities of Halloween, including food, frolicking, fires and salutations to the dead, were foremost among them.
The Evolution of the Jack O’Lantern
One of the most iconic symbols of Halloween is the glowing pumpkin, carved and glowing from within with the flame of a candle.
For the Irish emigrants who fled the auld sod in the 1840s, pumpkins were an exotic material they likely would not have known about, never mind used.
The candlelit vegetable has even more earthy origins: it started out life as a carved turnip or potato, and it became known as a jack-o'-lantern because of old folklore traditions about a man named Stingy Jack.
Jack was allegedly notorious for cunning and deceit and while out walking one evening, he met the Devil himself.
Jack, ever alert to the chance to show some foxiness, managed to convince the Devil to climb a tree, and when he was above in the branches, Jack quickly carved a sign of the cross into the tree's bark, thus preventing the Devil from coming back down.
Backed into a corner, old Nick was forced to compromise, and Jack was able to strike a deal. He would let the Devil back down, but only if he promised not to claim Jack's soul when he died. The Devil said yessir.
The problems started when Jack eventually passed away.
Due to the way he’d lived his life, God refused his soul entry into Heaven—and who could argue with the big man on that one?—but the Devil kept up his part of the bargain and wouldn’t accept Jack into Hell either.
So Jack, denied entry to both normal destinations, became stuck forever in the veil between our world and the other one, and the Devil gave him a carved vegetable lit with one glowing ember to light his way.
So Jack became Jack of the lantern.
Jack-o’-lantern became carved pumpkins in old Irish kitchens—ostensibly to ward off any wandering evil spirits at the time of the year when spirits were most aplenty.
And carved pumpkins in old Irish kitchens became the lavishly decorated (and much easier to carve) pumpkins seen in a million windows and gardens every Halloween.
From Fires to Masks: A Short List of Halloween Customs
“All my life my parents said, ‘Never take candy from strangers.’ Then they dressed me up and said, ‘Go beg for it.’” — Rita Rudner, American comedian
Some Halloween customs have their roots way back in the old pagan traditions of Samhain.
Others are newly formed by society’s ever evolving culture and inventiveness.
We’ve already heard about the evolution of the carved lantern, but here’s a short list of traditions and pastimes often associated with this time of year.
- Trick-or-treating: As Rita Rudner says, going to stranger’s doors and begging for candy and sweets. This one does have its origins in old traditions, most notably the Samhain or winter-time practice of poorer people knocking on the doors of the well-off in search of “soul cakes”. Generally, the richer folk happily provided, as the prayers they would receive in return had great value too.
- Bonfires: It’s hard, from our electrified and streetlit vantage point, to appreciate just how important light was, especially in the darker parts of the year. Fires were lit for every conceivable commemoration and celebration, and the bigger the day, the bigger the fire. The fires at Samhain, at the end of summer, celebrating the harvest and preparing for the long winter months, will have been some of the biggest.
- Dress-up: The Spiderman suit your next-door-neighbour’s kid wore last year seems positively harmless compared to the roots of the costume tradition. Old traditions suggested that costumes and masks were a good way of confusing the spirits or tricking them into believing you were one of them for the night. As anyone who ever saw Ghostbusters knows, it’s always good to keep a ghost guessing.
- Ducking for apples: It’s often said that there is a Roman influence on the old Celtic Samhain and the newer Christian feast day of All Hallows. However, a festival attributed to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and vegetables, did not fall at the same time of year (and perhaps never happened at all). Nevertheless, apples are a recurring theme—orchards having been part of the harvest—and bobbing or ducking for apples in a bucket of water would have been a common part of any revelry. There were rewards to be had, too: the first to claim the apple might be encouraged to sleep with it under their pillow, and their future lover could appear to them that night in their dreams.
- The Ghost Party: By candlelight, of course. It seems that this is an American innovation, but it’s a popular one nonetheless. Letters might be circulated to desired attendees along the following lines:
- You are hereby notified to attend a Ghost Convention on the 31st of October, otherwise known as Hallowe'en.
- Come at eight o'clock and park your troubles at the door. Full ghostly regalia of sheet and pillow-case will be given to each ghost on arrival.
- Be sure to come and see what happens at the stroke of twelve!
- The Fire o’Love: A large tub or barrel would be filled with water, and each eligible girl (or “maiden”) invited to write her name on a separate piece of paper, twist it to a close and throw it on the water. Then a candle end, attached to a flat cork, is placed on the water to float around amongst the slips, which one by one are set alight and burn to dust. Soon, however, the candle sputters and dies, any remaining slips are taken out and the young women whose names appear upon them will be fated never to find a husband. (Whether this is a curse or a blessing is not entirely clear.)
The 20th Century’s Philosophy of Commerce and Celebration
As World War II passed and the world found a form of peace again, the world became entrenched in two diametrically opposed political philosophies.
In parts of the world, most notably in the superpower of the Soviet Union, communism—the centralization of all resources theoretically for the good of the collective—was the only show in town.
In others, led by the freedom-loving United States of America, a philosophy far on the other side of the spectrum took root: free market capitalism, where every day might bring opportunity to all who sought it and the American dream—of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—could live and breathe.
As this American worldview evolved and broadened, everything became an opportunity, and competition for those opportunities created abundance for all.
Amongst the most obvious of opportunities was the opportunity to leverage the calendar year, to take established traditions and create desired products, materials and experiences around them that consumers everywhere might wish to purchase to make the tradition that bit extra special.
Christmas went first. Spurred on at least in part by the Irving Berlin song “White Christmas”, written in 1942 for the musical film Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby, for everyone everywhere it quickly became the annual gift that kept on giving.
Other annual festivals presented similar opportunities for the resourceful and the entrepreneurial. Valentine’s Day became the time of year for would-be lovers to shower one another with gifts.
And there’s no doubt that Halloween, with its promise of the macabre, its otherworldly appeal and its chance to dress up and let the hair down for one night only, fit nicely into the commercial calendar.
Despite all the commerce and consumerism, though, the old festival and its traditions are not yet lost.
They’re just overshadowed for a while.
But if the past several hundred years have shown anything, it’s that Halloween and its older Samhain ancestor love the shadows.
And those shadows—and their promise of wandering spirits, good or evil—are an essential part of who we are.
So let’s say it once, say it loud and say it together.
Bonus Section: The Food of Halloween!
To get you in the mood for all the dress-up and the trick-or-treating, you might want to consider some of the traditional foods of old Samhain and Halloween.
They might not exactly get you in the mood for late nights of mad revelry and masks, but they might, in Ronald Hutton’s worlds, go some way to reconnecting you to those two most important of things: the world around you, and the people around you.
Enjoy a scoop of Colcannon for dinner, and follow it up for dessert with some butter-slathered Barmbrack and a mug of scalding hot tea!
Colcannon is a traditional Irish potato dish and has for many decades—perhaps even centuries— been a staple of the Halloween dinner table. It’s a blend of mashed potatoes and kale or cabbage, and its name is derived from the Irish phrase cál ceannann, meaning “white-headed cabbage.”
Barmbrack is a traditional fruit loaf whose name is anglicised from “bairín breac”, meaning "speckled loaf."
With both Colcannon and Barmbrack, tradition dictates that charms—perhaps coins, buttons or rings wrapped in paper—were hidden inside. A coin foretold prosperity, a ring romance, a thimble meant a life of singledom and a rag promised financial struggles.
Of course, if you’re at all worried about becoming prematurely departed yourself, feel free to leave out the hardware.
- 4 lbs (7-8 large) potatoes
- 1 green cabbage or kale
- 1 cup milk or cream
- 1 stick of butter
- 4-5 scallions, chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Fresh parsley or chives for garnish
- Peel and boil the potatoes.
- Core and thinly slice the cabbage/kale. Boil in a large saucepan until slightly wilted (3-5 minutes). Ensure it's not overcooked.
- Drain the cabbage/kale and squeeze out any excess moisture. Return to the saucepan, add a third of the butter, and keep warm.
- Once potatoes are soft, drain and return to the saucepan. Let them dry on low heat.
- Add milk, a third of the butter, and scallions to the potatoes. Warm until the butter melts and the mixture steams.
- Mash the potatoes into the butter/milk mixture. Avoid over-processing to prevent a gluey texture.
- Mix in the cabbage.
- Serve with a pinch of salt, a sprinkle of parsley or chives, and a dollop of the remaining butter in the center.
- 375g dried fruit
- 300ml cold tea
- 225g self-raising flour
- 1 beaten egg
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 125g caster sugar
- Butter or margarine (to grease)
- Honey or golden Syrup (for glazing, optional)
- Soak the dried fruit in tea overnight and drain.
- Combine the soaked fruit with flour, egg, spice, and sugar.
- If using charms, gently stir them in, but make sure not to overwork the dough.
- Line a 20cm round cake tin or 900g loaf tin with greaseproof paper and butter or margarine, and pour in the mixture.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 340F for about an hour, or until risen and firm.
- For a glossy finish, brush with melted honey or golden syrup, or use a syrup made from two teaspoons of sugar dissolved in three teaspoons of boiling water.
And that’s it for our run-down on Samhain and Halloween.
Before you go, you might enjoy this little recording from 1986 of singer Mary Black and her family, performing the old Colcannon song “The Little Skillet Pot” on The Late, Late Show.