Halloween and Samhain Facts, Meaning, and Magic

Updated on October 13th, 2020

Tree mysterious
A mysterious scene for Halloween (Illustration by SplitShire, via Pixabay)

Halloween is a special time of year for many people. Costumes, trick-or-treating, candy, and carving pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns are an enjoyable part of the event. Halloween is believed to be derived from Samhain, an ancient harvest festival that involved the remembrance of the dead. Traces of the older celebration can be found in the modern one. The 2020 Halloween event will probably be a bit different from usual due to the presence of the coronavirus, but it should still be possible to have fun.

The farther we’ve got from the magic and  mystery of the past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween. (Quote from Paula Guran)

The History of Halloween

Tracing the history of an event that began long ago can be tricky. This is certainly true for Halloween. The traditional beliefs associated with the celebration seem to have been slightly different in different locations, which makes tracing its evolution difficult. Beliefs and activities merged and diverged in various communities over time. In general, however, it’s thought that the history of the event involved the following highlights.

Halloween is believed to be based on the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-win), which means summer’s end. The Celts lived during the Iron Age in Europe. Samhain was a harvest festival. Farm animals were brought into a safe place for the winter, and a bonfire was lit to prepare a last celebratory meal before the cold and dark season arrived.

Samhain was believed to be a time when the veil between this world and the next was unusually thin. It was thought that the dead could enter the world of the living at this time. In some places, food from a meal was placed on a separate plate for an unearthly visitor. It’s said that some people donned a costume as a disguise so that any malevolent spirits wouldn’t recognize them. Over the years, Samhain was modified by various influences until it became our modern celebration.

Another of the influences on today’s Halloween is thought to have been the custom of guising, which was popular in the middle ages. People donned fancy dress and then visited various homes. Here the guisers or mummers provided some form of entertainment, such as reciting a poem or singing a song. They received an edible treat in return for the entertainment.

Drinking a hot and delicious pumpkin spice latte or another warm and comforting drink could be an enjoyable part of the Halloween celebration (Image by JillWellington, via Pixabay)

Christian Contributions to the Festival

The word “Halloween” is derived from “All Hallow’s Eve” or a similar phrase. The event was established by the Catholic Church as an attempt to bring religious meaning to the popular annual celebration. Halloween preceded All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. Though some people recognize all three days in the religious event today, for others October 31st is the only day of celebration.

“Souling” was a custom associated with the Christian celebration. A group of people would go from door to door asking for soul cakes in return for praying for the soul of someone in purgatory. The visitors were often children or poor adults. A soul cake was a cross between a scone and a cookie.

I’ve written an article about souling, soul cakes, and the song associated with the treats. A lovely folk song about the custom was sung in the past and is performed by various artists today. The chorus is shown below. The piece was collected by various listeners in the 1800s. “Collecting” a folk song frequently means that someone with musical knowledge hears a person sing the song and then writes a simple music score and a record of the words. The composer of the souling song is unknown.

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

This looks like a scene where ghosts could appear (Illustration by Lothar Dieterich, via Pixabay)

I was born on the night of Samhain, when the barrier between the worlds  is whisper-thin, and when magic, old magic, sings its heady and sweet song to anyone who cares to hear it. (Quote from Carolyn MacCullough)

Halloween Today

Pagans still celebrate Samhain. Celebrating the gifts of the Earth during the last harvest of the year and thinking of those who have passed on seems like a good idea for a special event. I would never want to deny children their stash of candy, though. For many people, Halloween is a fun day, and any “creepiness” is part of the fun. For some folks, however, the event holds a spiritual meaning as well as or instead of being entertaining.

I enjoy October 31st for multiple reasons. It’s nice to see my community celebrating with decorations on their homes and in their front gardens, and it’s fun to see both adults and children in costumes. Trick-or-treating has dwindled along my road in recent times. Last year, no one visited my home for candy. Some local stores and organizations distribute treats for children, though, which must be fun for the younger ones.

Another activity that I like to do on October 31st is to think about reality and the possible existence of aspects that we aren’t normally aware of. Reading about the topic and contemplating the ideas that are presented is enjoyable and often interesting. I try to go for a walk in a natural area as I think about the topic.

It’s sad to refer to the coronavirus in an article about Halloween, but this year it’s necessary. (Illustration from Scientific American Animations and Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

COVID-19 and Halloween

Halloween will likely look different in 2020 because of the presence of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In the last reference that I’ve listed below, the CDC give suggestions for alternate activities during Halloween and other popular fall celebrations. It also describes the risk associated with each event. Some of the organization’s suggestions for safe Halloween activities include a search for candy hidden inside the home, carving pumpkins either at home or outside with neighbours while people are at a safe distance, doing a scavenger hunt by looking at decorations outside neighbourhood homes, and having a Halloween movie night with the family.

The CDC also discusses some activities that provide more risk than the ones mentioned above. They say that outdoor events such as visiting a pumpkin patch or a haunted forest require caution. It’s important that people maintain social distancing during the visit, and the use of masks is advised. The organization also points out that if people are screaming, increased distancing is required. They say that a costume mask is probably not a substitute for a suitably-constructed cloth mask, and that hand sanitizer should be used when necessary. I think the CDC page is important to read when planning Halloween events.

Have a happy October 31st, whatever the day means to you. I hope that experiencing one or more of magic, mystery, and fun creates a meaningful, enjoyable, and safe celebration for you.

References

  • Samhain and Halloween information from history.com
  • Samhain history from TIME
  • Trick-or-treat and souling facts from The Phrase Finder
  • Autumn celebrations and precautions in the time  of COVID-19 from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

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