It was once believed that at Samhain, the Celtic New Year, the veil between our world and the spirit world was very thin. The festival of Samhain (sow-en), celebrated on November 1st, was a gateway to the otherworld, when spirits wandered the earth in search of new bodies to possess. People made their homes as inhospitable as possible, so the spirits would be less likely to enter them. All fires - candles, fireplace, etc. - were extinguished to make the house dark and uninviting. The tradition of dressing in Halloween costumes and painting faces in an ugly way also came about because people wanted to make themselves unappealing to these wandering spirits. Even loud noises were encouraged to frighten the spirits away! The holiday is very much about avoiding wandering spirits, whatever you may have heard about Samhain rituals to honor the dead.
The origin of All Hallows Eve is a bit different than you may have heard. Some time in the 8th century A.D., the Catholic Church began to commemorate All Saints Day and All Souls Day at this time of year. The Church realized it could not wipe out the popular pagan feast of Samhain, so it was “christianized” instead. The notion of a close connection to the dead was attached to a newer holiday called The Eve of the Feast of All Hallows, or Halloween.
Many Americans don’t realize that Halloween was never celebrated here in America until the arrival of the famine-era Irish. The U.S. was a Protestant country with a Puritan leaning. When the Irish came in the 1840's, they brought their own brand of Catholicism with them. This included the Halloween rite, with its eccentric mix of Christian and pre-Christian customs.
Divining Your Future
Because Samhain coincided with the year’s final harvest, the wheat, apples and nuts that were so plentiful at this time became part of Halloween customs. When I was growing up in the US, my Irish-born parents had us “duck” for apples into which coins were inserted, and play "Snap Apple," where an apple would be hung on a string -- you had to get a good bite of the apple while keeping your hands behind your back to get the money inside.
Some Irish customs were meant to divine your fortune for the coming year. My mother always had barmbrack (from Bairín Breac - meaning "speckled loaf"). This is a type of fruitcake containing charms that foretold your future. If you got the slice with the ring, you would soon marry. A button or thimble meant you would remain a bachelor or a spinster. A coin, of course, foretold wealth, while a rag predicted poverty.
To discover whom you would marry, you tried to peel an apple all in one go, without breaking the peel. If you succeeded, you threw the peel over your shoulder. The way it came to rest on the floor would give you the initial of the one you would marry.
Stingy Jack’s Lantern
The jack-o'-lantern comes from a story told in many variations. Here's an interesting version: There was a man named Jack, who was notorious for his sinful ways - the worst of which was stinginess. When the Devil came to claim Jack's soul one evening, Jack cleverly persuaded him to have a drink first. Being so stingy, Jack made the Devil pay for the drink. To pay for the drink, the Devil turned himself into a sixpence, thinking he could turn himself back when the barman wasn't looking. Stingy Jack immediately grabbed hold of the sixpence and jammed it into his pocket along with his rosary. You can imagine the devil’s discomfort at being in the same pocket with a rosary. The Devil pleaded with Jack to release him, which Jack did, on the condition that the Devil wouldn't bother him again for a full year.
After a year, the Devil returned to take Jack. But somehow Jack persuaded him to climb a tree. Then, Jack carved a cross in the tree, and the poor old Devil was stuck there for a long time. When, at last, Jack grew old and died, he was refused entry into heaven because of his stinginess. But when he approached hell, the Devil was so fed up with his practical jokes, he turned him away as well!
Poor Jack was doomed to wander until Judgment Day. But the Devil gave him a hot coal from the hobs of hell to help him see his way around. Jack placed the coal in a turnip and is supposedly still wandering with his "lantern,” waiting his chance to plead his case. In America, pumpkins were more plentiful than turnips, and probably easier to carve. Hence the modern Jack Lantern o origin.
After all this time, it’s amazing how Halloween clings to America’s culture. This year, as you celebrate Halloween, you can remember your Celtic forbears and wish one another a happy and prosperous New Year.