By Andrew Mitchell
It’s a good time to be scared.
The days are growing shorter, the air is growing colder, the leaves fall and green things brown and wither. If spring is a time of rebirth and renewal, then Halloween has always been a time of death and decay, the last harvest before winter freezes everything.
Every ancient civilization and culture has observed this changing of seasons and cycles, some with celebrations and others with rituals of fear, which is fitting because the Halloween we celebrate in the 21 st century is meant to be a little bit of both — fun and frightening.
Our own Halloween traditions can be traced back more than 2,000 years to the Celts of Ireland, who observed the annual festival of Samhain, which means “summer’s end”.
The festival marked the end of the harvest, and the beginning of the dark season and the season of death — in those days it was common for people who were very young, very old or very sick to die over the winter from a mix of cold, hunger and disease. Our ancestors were very much at the mercy of nature, and winter was the most unmerciful season of all.
Oct. 31 was also the last day of the Celtic calendar year, and it was said that the boundaries between the world of the dead and the world of the living were blurred when the sun went down. The Celts believed that ghosts walked the earth, sometimes ruining crops and spreading mischief, sometimes marking the next to die. It was also said that the Druid priests could commune with the dead and foretell the future.
During the celebration of Samhain, the Celts often wore costumes — usually animal heads and skins, both to disguise themselves from the dead and to make a few future predictions of their own.
Adding to the general spookiness of the evening, the Celts also extinguished the flames in their hearths and joined the Druids at large sacrificial bonfires where crops and animals were burned as offerings to their gods. Towards the end of the evening the farmers and townspeople would take a flame from the bonfire, which they would carry back to their homes to serve as protection for the long winter.
The Festival of Samhain did not die after the Romans at last conquered the Celts in 43 A.D. Instead, two harvest festivals of Roman origin were assimilated into Samhain. The first was called “Feralia”, a date in late October when the Romans ritually commemorated the passing of the dead, while the second festival was “Pomona”, which honoured the Roman goddess of fruit and trees… which also explains why Halloween is not just about ghouls and ghosts, but also about candy apples.