Today Celtic Halloween symbols have been eclipsed by the pure fun of Halloween, which is generally recognised as a festive date that marks the coming of the colder months and is, no more and no less, a great occasion for children and adults alike to have a good time. Ask any child what Halloween means and the unhesitating answer is bound to include any or all of its most famous emblems: pumpkins, witches, costumes and “trick-or-treat”.
The pumpkin is a symbol that originates not from the ancient Celtic tradition that originally gave birth to the festivity but from the more recent Irish folk tradition and the story of Jack o’Lantern. Jack was a shrewd and wicked old farmer who manages to trick the Devil in a variety of ways, depending on the particular version of the folk tale, and forces him to promise not to take his soul when he dies.
When the old man does actually die, however, he finds that after living such a sinful life he is not accepted into Heaven and, having forced the Devil to renounce his soul, he is also turned away from the gates of Hell. When Jack asks how he will find his way in the darkness the Devil laughs and throws him a burning coal from Hell. This he puts inside a hollowed turnip and sets off to wander the world forever in search of a place to rest.
Such makeshift lanterns were, in fact, commonly used in old Ireland (see below), but were originally made from potatoes, turnips or beets, and it was not until Irish immigrated to America that pumpkins were used.
The theme of the dead, witches and the supernatural, on the other hand, has very ancient roots.
Hallowe’en, or Hallow’s eve, in fact, is actually the modern ‘consecrated’ version of the ancient Celtic festivity known as Samhain (“Summer’s end”), which was held on October 31st (being the day when the sun was at its lowest according to the ancient standing stones of Britain and Ireland) and marked the beginning of the Celtic new year and the dark, black months (as they are still called today in Celtic countries).
While the other main season in the calendar of the Druids – Beltane, celebrated on May the 1st – heralds the beginning of summer and is a celebration of life and birth, Samhain is dedicated to the dead and dying, as the season itself suggests.
There is also another important reason why Samhain was associated with the dead, however. The Celtic lunar calendar consisted of 13 months of 28 days each – plus one extra day to make 365 days. This extra day is October 31st, the day between the old year and the new year, a sort of ‘time between times’ when the curtain between the physical and supernatural worlds was drawn aside, allowing dead ancestors and supernatural beings (the so-called ‘faery folk’, so beloved to the traditions of Celtic countries) to cross over and visit the world of mortals.
Hence the practice of leaving food outside the house for roaming spirits, and a candle in the window to help departed loved ones find their way home. Turnips were hollowed out and transformed to resemble ‘protective spirits’ that guarded the home during these magical, chaotic hours when abnormal and supernatural things were allowed to happen. Samhain, therefore, was also a time when people could briefly lay aside their worries and responsibilities and give vent to their playful, mischievous and unruly instincts, indulging in games, harmless pranks, feasting and merrymaking.
Although the symbolic, spiritual nature of the festivity has long been almost totally eclipsed by the commercial side, today Halloween’s growing popularity on a worldwide scale is giving rise also to a renewed interest in its roots and in Celtic symbols.
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