HALLOWEEN — The modern holiday of Halloween has its origins in the ancient Gaelic festival known as Samhain (“Sow-in” or alternatively “Sa-ven”, meaning: End of the Summer). The Festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, and is frequently regarded as ‘The Celtic New Year’.
Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Whether or not the ancient Celts considered Samhain to be the beginning of the new year, or just one point in the cycle of the seasons, the living traditions in the Celtic lands and the diaspora regard it as the “Celtic New Year” and it continues to be celebrated as such. For instance, the calendars produced by the Celtic League begin and end at Samhain/Halloween.
The Ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the deceased would come back to life and cause havoc such as sickness or damaged crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, where the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them. When the Romans occupied Celtic territory, several Roman traditions were also incorporated into the festivals. Feralia, a day celebrated in late October by the Romans for the passing of the dead as well as a festival which celebrated the Roman Goddess Pomona, the goddess of fruit were incorporated into the celebrations. The symbol of Pomona was an apple, which is a proposed origin for the tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween
The carved pumpkin, lit by a candle inside, is one of Halloween’s most prominent symbols. This is an Irish tradition of carving a lantern which goes back centuries. These lanterns are usually carved from a turnip or “swede.” The carving of pumpkins was first associated with Halloween in North America, where the pumpkin was available, and much larger and easier to carve. Many families that celebrate Halloween carve a pumpkin into a frightening or comical face and place it on their home’s doorstep after dark.
The jack-o-lantern can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard drinking old farmer who tricked the devil into climbing a tree, and trapped him by carving a cross into the trunk of the tree. In revenge, the devil placed a curse on Jack which dooms him to forever wander the earth at night. For centuries, the bedtime parable was told by Irish parents to their children. But in America the tradition of carving pumpkins is known to have preceded the Great Famine period of Irish immigration, and the tradition of carving vegetable lanterns may also have been brought over by the Scottish or English; documentation is unavailable to establish when or by whom. The carved pumpkin was associated generally with harvest time in America, and did not become specifically associated with Halloween until the mid to late 19th century.
In the old Norse religion, an event believed to occur around the same time of the year as Halloween was the álfablót (elven blót), which involved sacrifices to the elves and the blessing of food. The elves were powers connected to the ancestors, and it can be assumed that the blót related to a cult of the ancestors. The álfablót is also celebrated in the modern revival of Norse religion, Asatrú.