Autumn is in full sway, the short days swallowed up by lengthening nights, the trees going bare, the fields brown, the nights cold, the mornings soon to be crisp with frost. It is the time when the earth sleeps and waits for light and warmth to return.
Perhaps no day is a more visible part of autumn than Oct. 31, the day U.S. citizens know as Halloween.
Halloween has many other names. In pre-Christian times it was the day before Samhain (pronounced Sow’-in), a Celtic word meaning “end of the warm season,” a time to send out the old and welcome in the new. Celtic people then lived in the lands now known as England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.
Around 800 A.D. the day became known as Martinsman and Martinmaas, or “Old Hallows,” eventually leading to the modern label of Halloween or “All Hallow’s Eve.”
The holiday was later Christianized as All Saints Day or All Souls Day as a way of honoring the blessed dead-those who were hallowed (made holy) by their obedience to the Christian God.
Some of the other names for Halloween include Shadowfest, The Day Between the Years, Mischief Night, Third Harvest and the Day of the Dead, the latter a particular celebration in Mexican culture, as El Dia de los Muertos.
In its traditional form, Samhain has three main functions. It is the final harvest festival of autumn, representing the last breath of life before winter casts its cold, dark silence over the world.
In Celtic traditions, Samhain was the symbolic New Year, and the start of the cyclical “Wheel of the Year.” It was a time to assess the past year and make plans for the one to come, as well as for one’s own personal growth.
Finally, Samhain was considered by many pre-Christian cultures to be the most magical night of the year, a time when the veil between the living and non-living worlds was at its thinnest. On this night, time was suspended and spirits and humans could mix freely.
What we know today as the modern version of Halloween is a hybrid of all of the above.
The traditional symbols of Samhain include pumpkins (and jack-o’-lanterns), squashes and gourds, bonfires, cauldrons, brooms, black cats, costumes and autumn foliage.
In times past, carved gourds, squashes and turnips were filled with candles and used as Samhain lanterns. Skull-like faces carved into the vegetables may have referenced ancient customs of setting out skulls to keep evil spirits away. Or, they may have reflected the Celtic veneration of the head as the seat of the soul.
Today pumpkins are used for jack-o’-lanterns, but in the cold Celtic lands of times past, pumpkins did not usually ripen in the short summers – hence the use of other types of gourds.
Bonfires are an important part of Samhain. The word “bonfire” comes from “bone fire,” a reference to the time when plagues devastated Europe, leaving bodies to be burned in huge “bone pile” fires.
In ancient times, huge bonfires – also called balefires – were lit as a focus of Samhain celebration. For best luck, the fire was built of the Druid’s nine sacred woods – willow, rowan, yew, oak, birch, hazel, holly, hawthorn and elder – and was lit with flint and steel, igniting on the first attempt.
Ritual fires were lit at dusk, to protect the people and their lands from wandering spirits.
Leaping the balefire was said to secure protection from evil, bring good luck and increase one’s fertility.
In the Scottish tradition, the Samhain bonfire, samhnag, was often built on or near burial mounds (cairns), as these were felt to be gates to the underworld. Mugwort, allspice, broom, catnip, sage and nightshade were cast into the flames to aid efforts at divination and scrying.
The Cauldron is a strong female womb-symbol from the pre-Christian world. Since autumn is associated with the ebbing of life and the coming of winter, the presence of a female symbol alludes to the life-giving forces that will once again return to the earth.
Brooms, also called besoms, are traditional symbols for witches, who were thought to ride their brooms across the Halloween skies. The besom was also a symbol for the folk healer or kitchen witch, who often worked with magick and herbs at the home’s center, the hearth.
Black cats became connected to Halloween via lore linking witches with their animal “familiars.”
Since humans and spirits are said to share the world on Halloween night, this was honored by the donning of costumes and by engaging in boisterous behaviors, including the sharing of treats. In Samhain times, roaming, costumed bands went door-to-door and performed or sang for treats, much like the Mummer dancers who performed at Yule time throughout the United Kingdom.
Dried leaves of orange and gold, sheaves of cornstalks and bales of hay symbolize the fading of life and the coming “death” of winter.
Feasting was another important part of Samhain. In many traditions, an empty place was set at the table for any ancestors that might drop by. While the family ate, they shared stories and memories of departed loved ones.
Apple-bobbing-known as apple dookin’ in Scotland-may be a remnant of a Pagan baptismal rite known as seining. In seining, the water-filled tub was the “Cauldron of Regeneration,” in which the celebrant’s head was immersed. Another explanation suggests bobbing for apples as an "Ordeal by Water," foretelling the passage of the soul to the hereafter over the waters separating them.
Apples – a fruit with symbolic importance in many religions – may also represent the journey to obtain magic fruit from the Celtic Otherworld Island of Apples, an edenic paradise.
Yet another interesting magical piece of Halloween lore is that of the Wild Hunt, where the hunters ride ghost-steeds and gather spirits of all of those who are dead but still wander. Legend says that if you feel a sharp wind on Samhain, it may be hunter’s passing, and if you hear a wild yelping, it may be the huntsman’s spirit hounds, otherworldly animals with white bodies and red ears.