Did you know that Halloween originated from an ancient festival celebrated by Celtic peoples more than 2,000 years ago? The Celts lived in the area that is now Great Britain, Ireland, and northern France. Their Samhain (meaning “summer’s end”) festival took place around November 1 and marked the start of the dark season of winter. It was a wonderful time of transition for the Celts, At Samhain, the walls between the natural world and the supernatural crumbled, permitting the dead to walk among the living and the færie folk to cast their spells over humanity; a time when the dead could divulge secrets of the future.
During the 9th Century, the Christian church created (though some would say “co-opted”) a festival on November 1, one that celebrated the lives of saints—Christian ancestors who had lived especially holy lives in devotion to God. Dubbed “All Saints’ Day,” this new holy day (or “holiday”) was also known as “All Hallows’ Day” (Hallow being another word for holy folk. Often, holiday feasts lasted more than a single day, so the evening before the holiday became part of it. Hence, “Christmas Eve” accompanied Christmas Day, and All Saints’ Day was preceded by “All Hallows’ Eve,” which eventually became simply Hallowe’en.
By the time the church established All Saints’ Day on November 1, the people of this region had become Christians. However, many of the Celtic customs survived from their pagan traditions. As a result, people incorporated the old pagan customs into their observances of the Christian feast. For example, many would leave a lantern or candle burning in the window of the home, so that the dead could find their way home for the night to impart their secrets to the living. Others would leave food out for their ancestors, so that they would be nourished upon their arrival at the family hearth. My mother recalls a custom from her own childhood, when her family would leave food on the hearth at bedtime. They believed that transactions between the living and the dead are somehow made easier during this special time of year.
Halloween is celebrated in many different ways today, having borrowed from many different cultures elements of their distinctive values, beliefs, and customs. Particularly in the United States, the holiday has devolved from its spiritual significance, becoming largely a day of secular festivity and costumed parties. Children go around trick-or-treating, and it’s fun and games all around.
I can’t help but think we’ve lost some of the magic and the wonder our ancestors felt, the abiding mystery of this seasonal change. The glorious excess of summer gives way to the cold dearth of winter. Vegetation dies and with it, the crops we live on. Inland streams and rivers freeze solid. Many creatures slip into hibernation, mimicking in deep sleep the appearance of death. Even daylight is abbreviated at this time of year, robbing us of precious sunlight. To the ancients, it must have seemed as if natural law was suspended each year. In their myths, we are reminded that our existence is precarious, dependent upon delicate balances we would do well to respect.
Personally, I reflect at this time of year on my dependence upon God for what He gives. The seasonal change reminds me of His love and provision, and of how precarious my existence really is. Modernity tempts me to overlook Providence. Modern inventions, in their provision of creature comforts, delude us into thinking we control our lives and the world around us. Clever technology affords me protection from the elements and the very nature of want. International supply lines bring food to sustain us all winter long. We insulate our homes from the cold and adjust temperature and humidity to suit our individual tastes. Our ancestors would think us gods for the control we exert over our environment; but remember, it’s an illusion. For to think ourselves gods would demonstrate hubris and arrogance. We live under the mercy of the Almighty, and we would do well to remember that.
Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy the comforts and conveniences of modern life. I just recognize that comfort is a sweet distraction from the perspective of our ancestors. The Celts understood that their existence was fragile, and this is reflected in their rituals and customs. Medieval Christians understood that the celebration of life extended beyond this world into the afterlife, that we could connect with it in the here and now. I believe that we can all benefit from this perspective, to observe that we are creatures influenced mightily by prayer and magic, and that we can recapture the understanding that, despite our technology and prosperity, we continue to exist under the benevolent hand of the Creator, and we are dependent upon His provision.
Photo: by Toni Cuenca from Pexels
Dom De Bellis is an entrepreneur, author, public speaker, coach, and minister of the Gospel. When he's not serving his church or Boy Scout Troop, he is helping people in cities grow organic food.