Pumpkin-carving in Toronto / Hallowe’en’s origins in SamhainPosted: October 31, 2013
Hallowe’en, in its contemporary North-American manifestation, owes as much to pop-culture notions of corpses, cannibals and zombies in B-movies – and to Michael Jackson’s 1983 music video for his “monster” hit-song Thriller – as it does to the murky past. So it can be difficult to recognize Hallowe’en as a festival that evolved out of a pre-Christian Celtic seasonal ritual – Samhain. Samhain means, in Old Irish, “Summer’s end”. Around about October 31st all the harvest would’ve been gathered in, and the darker half of the year was beginning. The folk belief was that on that night of Samhain all spirits traveled easily back and forth between “our” world and the “other side of the veil” – making spiritual activity, including ‘visits’ from dead ancestors, and appearances by Aos Sí or “fairies” – who might enchant you or make malevolent mischief – particularly lively. The Aos Sí were respected and feared, and people appeased them with offerings of food and drink and with a portion of the crops. Pleasing the capricious Aos Sí meant that people and their livestock would survive the coming winter. The souls of the dead were also said to return to their homes, and so a place would be set for them at the board and a stool put for them by the fire. Ritual bonfires were built out of doors, and the flames allowed to go as high as they could go, in a kind of “imitative or suggestive magic”: that of the Sun and its power for growth and for keeping at bay the darkness and decay of winter. Flame, smoke and ash were believed to have both cleansing and protective strength. Candles were lit and placed on the window ledge and a hollowed-out turnip, magelwurzel or beet with a candle within would be set at the threshold to one’s cottage or hut. By the 16th century “guising” began to appear in Scotland and Ireland. “Guising” meant going from house to house “in disguise” or in costume, and reciting verses or singing songs in return for food and drink – or a blessing; the origin is clear there for what we now call “trick or treating”. Many guisers went disguised as malevolent spirits or fearsome beings – both in imitation of the Aos Sí and to “frighten them back”. Some carried a candle-lit turnip with them in the dark – what we now might call a “jack-o-lantern”. The Roman-Catholic Church in Ireland did – over the centuries – attempt to “disappear” Samhain into the religiously-sanctioned All Hallows Day which falls on November 1st, but, as academic folklorist Jack Santino has written: “The sacred and the religious are a fundamental context for understanding Hallowe’en – [certainly] in Northern Ireland – but there, as throughout Ireland, an uneasy truce exists between customs and beliefs associated with Christianity and those associated with religions that were Irish before Christianity arrived.”
19th-century Irish immigrants to the USA began to use that beautiful Native-American autumn vegetable – the pumpkin – for their jack-o-lanterns, and this made a brilliant adaptation of an old custom to a superior material!
Fearsome or funny, our pumpkins will frighten approaching spirits or charm them into laughter. And so: Kind spirits, come! Baleful ones, A-WAY! Hard stone eyes, garlic eyes, drink-can tab eyes, money eyes: these’ll do the trick. Now let’s roast those pumpkin seeds!