All Hallows Eve, Samhain, Spooky Days, Whatever you choose to call it, the meaning remains the same. The night when the veil is thinnest and monsters and spirits come out to walk among the living once more. You know it well as the ceremony of dressing up in costumes and demanding candy from strangers. Yet the observance of old for this particularly dark holiday is quite far removed from the festivities we know today.
The origins of the traditions of Halloween comes from a handful of different cultures and religions, mixing together to make the melting pot (or better yet cauldron) of what it has become.
Imagine if you will, a different day to day reality approximately 4,000 years ago. On the misty emerald glades of Ireland’s vast landscapes. The summer was less than bountiful and the final harvest and promise of winter silently approaches with each passing day. The sun’s final beams pass behind the horizon earlier than it had in the previous months and the days become shorter. It is as if the Gods are saying their final farewells for the year before leaving you and your kith and kin in darkness in the cold time to come.
You clasp hands with your loved ones as they gather around the bonfires set by the Druid priests and Crones. A meager attempt to replicate the great fire the Gods have taken with them to their slumber for the winter. Insects are drawn by the light the flames give off, and bats to them. You see them fluttering in the dark above your heads and draw your loved ones closer. You rest somewhat easier knowing the proper offerings of food and wine have been placed just outside the village boundaries, to satisfy the menacing spirits free-roaming this world tonight.
This was the reality of the Celtic people in Ireland and England at this time. The rituals and customs which were performed during the month of October and finalizing on the 31st were, and still, are Samhain (sow-in) the Celtic name for the harvest season. These rituals were not simply tradition, but also a means of survival for the Celts. Bonfires and sacrifices of cow, horse, and possibly even human, where the deciding factor of the God’s favor, and with it the survival or death of everything they knew and loved.
As the days grew shorter and the nights longer, it was believed that the Gods were readying themselves to begin their winter slumber. Taking the sun’s life-giving rays with them, they would be reborn in the spring. But until then the Celts believed themselves to be on their own. For this reason, large bonfires were lit in order to replicate the life-giving heat of the sun.
The last harvest on the last day of Samhain (October 31st) could make or break a winter supply, as it was the final bit of food to be expected until more could be planted in the spring. In addition to this, the Celtic priests, known as Druids and Crones (Celtic wise women) believed that on this day the boundaries between our reality and that of theirs was thinnest opening a door. For one night a year, souls of all those who had perished in the last year as well as those of different dimensions and realities could wander into our own. Fairy mounds (hills of stone dotting the Irish and Scottish Countryside) were seen to come alive with fairies and even demons crossing the vale through these portals or doorways. Vice versa, it was also believed that we ourselves could wander into realities not our own and even become trapped there!
For some, the thought of seeing a loved one again post mortem would send the blood to ice and the heart a-racing, but for the Celtic people, it was the last opportunity to honor the dead before saying goodbye. However, one had to be particularly careful not to be too welcoming, as the spirits would not wish to return to the netherworld after the festivities conclusion. As well as this, not all of the souls crossing over could be expected to be that of loved ones and beings of light. Darkness would indeed bleed through to our world, seeking to cause mischief, havoc and at times harm or even death. These spirits need to be satiated as well, else they may venture in the villages to sate their thirst. To do this, offerings of food, sweets, and wines were left just outside of village boundaries, as to not draw the spirits too close. This could be later viewed as the origin of trick-or-treating. In addition to this, it was important to be able to hide among the dead, lest one be recognized by a spirit friend or foe. Disguises were used to obscure one’s face to hide unnoticed in plain sight. To further protect from the evil lurking in the night, turnips were carved into frightening faces and an ember was placed inside to ward off any spirits that might do harm.
Other festivities held during this time were that of the bonfires. These larger than life flames were dual purpose, in that they served as a light in the darkness as well as means for sacrifice and offerings to their Gods. Large animals such as horses and cows and as some historians believe, humans, were placed on top of the fires. When the remains were burnt to char, then the Druids would divine the future of the year to come by reading the sacrifices burnt entrails left behind by the fire. Who was to thrive, and who was to perish was the prophecies of the Druids that night. These words would travel through the village quickly and discussed through the night, thus originating the tradition of reciting scary stories on the night of Halloween.
These traditions and more were practiced for centuries among the Celts. It was not only a part of religious beliefs, but also a way of life not easily changed. So when the Catholic church appeared on the scene, eager to convert these “barbaric pagans” to the Christian way, it was quite the conundrum on how to divert what they perceived as Devil worship to that of the Christian God instead.
Even across Europe, the church was doing its work to convert the Roman pagans, who worshiped their own deities and practiced their own harvest traditions. Although the Roman day to honor the dead fell on May 13th (Lemuria) it later merged with that of the Celts in October, but more on that in a moment. The Catholic church looked down on the traditions of the pagan Romans and those of the Celts, worshiping deities of nature and Earth. Turning oneself to heaven and that of the face of God, all things earthly were to be rejected, so these entities of nature the still pagan Romans and Celtic people were worshiping could only truly be demons. The church took it upon themselves the duty of saving the souls of these people.
As the church worked to re-educate the pagans to the new ways of things, frustration arose when the traditions and holidays paying homage to the deities of nature did not cease. Patience was preached by Pope Gregory the 1st, famous for instigating the first recorded large scale mission from Rome. “If you are to happen upon a group of people worshiping a tree, do not cut the tree down, as they will simply go elsewhere. But instead, consecrate the tree in the name of Christ and encourage them to continue meeting just as they had.” In this way, the church tried to practice tolerance of the traditions of the past as the traditions of the church were eased into the lives of the Irish and Roman people. However as this went on for a time, the Pope of tolerance was replaced by a less than patient one. Pope Boniface IV viewed the action needed to take against the pagan practices to be more direct, he sought to “stamp out the pagan beliefs”. In the year 609, the day May 13th known to the Romans as Lemuria was consecrated to the Blessed Virgin and all the Martyrs as All Saints Day. In this way, the new day honoring the dead was to overshadow the pagan’s traditions, they were encouraged to practice the new instead of the old.
Later, Pope Gregory III took this one step further during his reign, (the years 731 to 741) encompassing the attention of the Celtic Samhain, by moving All Saints Day to November 1st. In 837 Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance and the day was known as All Hallows, meaning all holy. Because of this, Samhain on October 31st took to being called All Hallows Evening, then later shortened to All Hallows Eve, then finally took on the name we know it by today, Halloween. To further shift the attention from the spooky holiday, the church declared All Souls Day on November 2nd, meant to honor not only Saints but all Christians who had passed. Together the three days were known as “Allhallowtide”. In this way as well as other attempts by the church to graph the new to the old, the Christian traditions were meant to appear more appealing to those outside the faith.
Throughout its long history, many traditions from multiple different cultures have become associated with the day of Halloween, one of which became the very symbol of the holiday and is still practiced today, the Jack-o-lantern. Originally used by the Celtic people to ward off unwanted spirits from entering a home, the effigy came along with a chilling tale of its own. For this part of the history lesson, gather close around the Crypto Science Society provided virtual campfire and ready yourself for a wickedly creepy tale!
Stingy Jack was supposedly a merciless trickster, even being said to play a trick on the Devil himself. It is said that he convinced the Devil to climb a tree and assist in picking its fruit, while in the tree Jack lined the bottom with crosses that the Devil could not tread over. In order to be allowed to descend the tree, Jack forced the Devil to make a deal when Jack finally did die the Devil could not take his soul. On the inevitable day when Jack breathed his last, he ascended into the Heavens, however, he was not permitted to enter the pearly gates as according to Saint Peter, “He was mean and cruel, and had led a miserable, worthless life on Earth”. He then descended to Hell where he was met by the Devil. But because of the deal he had made with Jack, Hell would also not take him. Afraid and unsure of what to do, Jack pleaded with the beast. What was he to do but wander in the dark of the netherworld forever, neither welcome in Heaven nor Hell. He asked the adversary, how could he leave? As there was no light to see. The Devil then gave Jack an ember from the fires of Hell to light his way. Jack had a turnip with him at this time, he hollowed it out and placed the ember inside to use as a lantern. Thus forth he roams the Earth, lighting the way with his makeshift Jack-o-lantern, doomed in his consciousness search to finally find rest.
Despite this cheery tail of whoa, the Jack-o-lantern has become a lighthearted symbol of the holiday. Another origin legend of these beacons is that of the sailors of the ports of old England. Sailing into the harbor late in the misty moonlit nights, the only thing to light their way. The small deck lanterns were held by the weary sailors eager to set their feet again upon the land. It is said that the swaying lights in the night appeared at a distance as severed heads, hauntingly staring out across the water, and thus obtained its creepy reputation.
Going back now to another familiar tradition still known today, the origins of trick or treating. The Catholic church had also adopted the concept of food for spirits among other customs, however always adding a twist of their own. In the multiple extents taken to graph new Christian traditions onto the already established pagan ones, the baking of soul cakes became a popular custom. What are soul cakes you may be asking? In the Catholic religion, there is a place outside of Heaven and Hell known as Purgatory, where souls exist in torment, too far from Heaven but too close to Hell. A way for these souls to leave Purgatory was to have enough prayers said on their behalf in order to be released. Soul cakes were baked and given to beggars and later children, on All Hallows Eve in exchange for prayers for loved ones.
Note: The humble writer of this report has taken it upon themselves to test bake these cakes and have included a recipe at the end of this article for your own cooking adventures.
One could not hope to encompass all of Halloweens significance without mentioning the influence of witches associated with the holiday. With the heavy influence of the church so strong in Europe, this group found themselves mercilessly hunted and “stamped out”. Before the trials of Salem, the whole of Europe had already undergone its own witch hunt fever. The history of witches in this region of the world would be far too extensive to include in this report, unfortunately. However, throughout the 15th-century women were hunted down as witches and burned alive for their alleged sins. In 1486, Pope Innocent VIII published a book condemning witchcraft and all who practice it. In 1431 the famous Joan of Arc even found her own end on a pyre of wood and the condemnation of being a witch. Such things as broomsticks and black cats were dammed as symbols of association of witches, black cats being said to be the souls of witches in animal form, and broomsticks diverted from their original use of being used as a tool to cleanse a location before rituals. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 through 1693 are well known. Almost 200 people were accused of witchcraft, 19 of which were convicted and executed by hanging. One man, Giles Corey, famously died after being crushed by stones refusing to plead one way or the other. At least 5 people died in jail while awaiting trial, all of which ignored due process and were primarily based on false pretenses.
These deaths could be contributed to the mass hysteria planted by the church in rebellion to the independence of wise women and healers. According to the church, healing was only to be performed by the men associated with the Catholic religion. The Crones and witches of Samhain were linked with demons such as Lilith. While the Christian beliefs condemned Lilith for consorting with Samael (the Devil) the witches of the pagan practices admired her for her independence and want of equality with man. These women were said to have been gifted by Lilith womanly powers to force men to do their bidding.
Witches and Druids were not the only groups spurred by the rapidly changing religious climate, however. In 1517, with the growing strength of the church and Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, such symbols as popes, priests, and even saints were rejected. Along with this, All Saints Day became somewhat obsolete. Because of this change in religious regime, much conflict was sparked among the people, even leading to a failed attempt to blow up the Protestant House of Lords on November 5th, 1605. The name Guy Fawkes gave way to another holiday celebrated during this time. Being found guarding the massive amounts of gunpowder later revealed to be meant to be used for the plan that would later be known as The Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes was tortured into confession and was sentenced to hang. However, immediately before his execution, Fawkes fell from the scaffold where he was to die, breaking his neck and effectively avoiding the fate of being hanged, drawn and quartered, lucky for him! The failure of the Gunpowder Plot is still celebrated today as Guy Fawkes Day by the British people, where effigies of the man are burned in his honor, as well as fireworks, lit in resemblance to the intended explosions of the plot. Because of the days close following to Halloween, the two holidays were seamlessly merged, although their connection is solely that of proximity.
When the Irish people immigrated to the Americas as a result of the potato famine of the 17th century, they brought with them their strange spooky customs, breathing new life into the holiday known as Halloween. However, it was not the Samhain of old with their animal sacrifices and prophecies of death. All Hallows Eve took on air to it as the pagan influence mostly died out. Turnips became pumpkins, which were found to be easier to carve, (as well as not being available outside of America) and the night of huddling close to the bonfire for light and protection became a night of festivities and merriment. Many old traditions became that of party games, such as bobbing for apples from the Roman homage of laying out nuts and apples for Pomona, the Goddess of the harvest. Games of divination became popular as well, such games were used to tell the future of one’s life regarding death, marriage, and children. By the end of the 19th century, the evil side of Halloween had completely been phased out, and the night was now a holiday for families. When the Great War broke out in 1914 the world was forced to put aside childish things in exchange for the responsibility and maturity that came along with it. Halloween was converted to a night primarily for youths.
Halloween had already gained a reputation of a night to cause mischief and mayhem under the cover of darkness, as well as a terrifying mask. At this point however the entities were less evil spirits and troublesome Fairies than simply rambunctious hooligans. Later on, in the 1800’s these pranks and tricks became even more serious than they had in previous years, causing damage to property, injury and even at times death. The young had become out of control and the adults were left uncertain of how to rein the chaos in.
A solution was found when Anoka Minnesota hosted the first Halloween Parade in America. With it came town-wide parties on the night of Halloween, where the youth could gather and effectively stay out of trouble. This is how the phrase “Trick-or-Treat” was established, keep the youth out of trouble by distracting them with candy and fun. Soon after all the symbols which we know and love today were commercialized as companies realized that great profit was to be made in the wake of the holiday. The first tradition to be capitalized was mass-produced paper costumes which shortly after receiving a nasty reputation for being extremely flammable. Despite this, extreme money was to be made off the holiday and Halloween changed into the flamboyant holiday we know today.
Somewhere along the way severed heads glowing dimly in the haze of the harbor became cheerful faces carved into pumpkins, and offerings to satisfy the dead were transformed into plastic-wrapped treats for children. As for the present and possible future of Halloween, we encroach into the unknown and realm of conspiracy. Some say that the holiday is used by such organizations as Illuminati as a means to desensitize the general population to see demons and ghouls walk among us. Perhaps we will never know. Or perhaps that is a question to be explored on another day.
For the time being, tread carefully all you witches, warlocks, ghosts, goblins and zombie Cheerleaders!
Hirshron Irish Soul Cakes Recipe
Tested by: Heather Jane Metcalf
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon cardamom
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Generous pinch of saffron (or substituted turmeric)
- ½ cup whole milk
- 8 Tablespoons unsalted butter softened
- ½ cup of sugar
- 2 egg yolks
- ½ cup currants (or substitute cranberries)
- 2 egg yolk, beaten
1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2) Combine the flour, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Mix well with a fork.
3) Cream the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon (or use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment). Add the egg yolks and blend in thoroughly with the back of the spoon. Add the spiced flour and combine it as thoroughly as possible; the mixture will be dry and crumbly.
4) Crumble the saffron threads into a small saucepan and heat over low heat just until they become aromatic, taking care not to burn them. Add the milk and heat just until hot to the touch. The milk will have turned a bright yellow. Remove from heat.
5) One tablespoon at a time, begin adding in the warm saffron milk, blending vigorously with the spoon. When you have a soft dough, stop adding milk; you probably won’t need the entire half-cup.
6) Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and knead gently, with floured hands, until the dough is uniform. Roll out gently to a thickness of ½ inch.
7) Using a floured 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, (or for this I used the lip of a mason jar or cup, as I did not have any cookie cutters available) cut out as many rounds as you can and set on an ungreased baking sheet. Smooth the edges of the cakes with your finger. You can gather and re-roll the scraps, gently. Score a crucifix shape into each cake.
8) Decorate the soul cakes with currants (or cranberries) following the shape of the cross. (It’s ok if some of them aren’t stationary). Then brush liberally with the beaten egg yolk or cream. This will also act as a glue for the currents/cranberries. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until just golden and shiny. Leave the cakes on the pan, as they will continue to cook until cool.
9) Once cool, share with friends and family and enjoy this delicious piece of Halloween history.
“Until next time, keep questioning” and Happy Halloween from all of us at, The Crypto Science Society.
The History Channel, “The Real Story of Halloween” https://youtu.be/_9ltwRDR_4E
The History Channel, “The Haunted History of Halloween”
ADVEXON TV, “The Origin of Halloween”
Edge of Wonder, “Halloween Occult Origins History Channel won’t tell you about – Who’s Really Being Tricked? 2018”
Sterkenberg, Zack, (Oct 12, 2018) Why We Carve Pumpkins & The Designs That Make Us Shriek (with Joy)
The History Place, (2000) “Irish Potato Famine”
Reppion, John, (May 22) “The Daughters of Lilith: Witches, Sexuality, and Power” https://www.dailygrail.com/2018/05/the-daughters-of-lilith-witches-sexuality-and-power/
Pumpkin Nook, “History of the Jack O’Lantern and Stingy Jack”
Halloween Express, “History of Witches and Witchcraft” https://www.halloweenexpress.com/history-of-witches-and-witchcraft/
The Holiday Spot, “History of Halloween” https://www.theholidayspot.com/halloween/history.htm
Britanica.com, “All Saints’ Day” https://www.britannica.com/topic/All-Saints-Day
The Food Dictator.com, “The Hirshon Irish Soul Cakes For Halloween” https://www.thefooddictator.com/hirshon-irish-soul-cakes-halloween/?epik=dj0yJnU9cWV0ck9pM0dMcHo3WmgxMUJwdHlvZE9BQkc0TDQtY2cmbj1zTjhHbFFDb3ZQZDhqZmUzTzdTaU53Jm09MyZ0PUFBQUFBRjJiMG5r