No More Gore! Return Halloween to Its Celtic Roots
Updated: Oct 7
I get excited every October. As I said in my last post, I love autumn. It’s my favorite season with my favorite non-religious holiday: Halloween. So, when I saw a Halloween-themed baking show advertised on one of those cooking networks, I rejoiced. What fun it would be, I thought, to watch those bakers making haunted houses, ghosts, graveyards, even zombies out of delectable goodies.
But as I scheduled the show to record on the DVR, I noticed a pattern in the episode titles and the themes. Creepy crawlies. Okay. I can see how that’s Halloween-related. There are bound to be some creepy things crawling around in graveyards. But the other titles talked about dismembered body parts, gory scenes, and ax murderers. Now, I haven’t been living on Venus. I’m aware that those things migrated from horror films to the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve. I’ve seen costumes that include chainsaws and butcher knives. I can understand one episode devoted to horror.
But, except for one mention of a haunted house, none of the episodes had anything to do with traditional Halloween things like ghosts, witches, black cats or skeletons. It was all gore and violence. I find this disturbing, especially since it seems to be the trend. I looked at the upcoming episodes of another Halloween food competition show and a pumpkin carving show. They’re leaning the same way.
American Distortion of Halloween and Samhain
For a while now, some people have tried to turn Halloween into a celebration of dark magic and all things that work against goodness and wholesomeness. This is a mangling of a holiday that is, in its origins, about good things. Above I called Halloween a non-religious holiday, and it is now, but it hasn’t always been. The name is a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening, a Christian holy day that was a vigil for All Hallows’ Day (aka All Saints Day). The word hallows which means “holy.” The word halo is related to it.
The Catholic Church placed the Christian holy day and its vigil on October 31st and November 1st purposefully. They were trying to move the newly Christianized Irish and Scottish Celts away from the celebration of Samhain. Of course, Samhain was maligned long before Halloween was, and in the same way. It was declared a celebration of darkness and unholy forces because it is, you know, pagan, as if that automatically means bad. But the truth is Samhain is a beautiful and deeply spiritual holy day with themes that align quite well with Christian theology.
It’s time to return Halloween to its Christian and Celtic roots. I promise it won’t take all the fun out of the holiday. There can still be ghosts, haunted houses, and things that go bump in the night. In fact, there should be. Gore and violence don’t have to be eliminated, but they shouldn’t be Halloween’s defining feature. Think about it. Do we really want to celebrate violence, dark deeds, and malign forces?
All Hallows’ Eve Themes
All Hallows’ Eve is the first day (night really) of a triduum, a three-day-long set of holy days. The second day, November 1st, is the main holy day of All Saints. This is followed on November 2nd with All Souls Day. All Saints celebrates all those holy souls who are saints in heaven but don’t have an official feast day. All Souls commemorates all those who have died in God’s grace but are in purgatory purifying their souls before to going into God’s presence. Naturally, themes of this triduum focus on goodness, holiness, and purification. But there is an additional theme associated with All Souls Day: remembering the ancestors. And that is one of Samhain's main themes, too.
The Fire Festival of Samhain and Its Themes
Samhain is one of the four Celtic fire festivals. The fire festivals are holy days. Each one marks the beginning of a season. Imbolc (February 1st) is the beginning of spring. May 1st, Beltane, marks the start of summer. Lughnasa (August 1st) is the final season of the year, and it heralds autumn. Samhain (November 1st) is the Celtic New Year and the start of winter.
Since Celtic days begin at sunset, Samhain starts when the sun goes down on October 31st. The Celtic year is divided into two halves: the dark and the light. Samhain marks the start of the dark half. Just as the Celtic day commences at sunset, each new Celtic year begins in darkness and moves towards the light. The light half of the year starts at Beltane.
The ancient Celts considered Samhain a pause between the ending of the old year and the start of the new one. This stopping of time made the holy day especially magical.
At Samhain, the veil between the human world and the Otherworld thins to such an extent that residents of either side can pass through the boundary. Thus, on Samhain, the souls of those who have died as well as faeries and other magical beings can cross into our world. They not only can, they do! According to Celtic folklore, on Samhain’s Eve, faeries and ghosts can hardly be avoided! And that’s not an entirely bad thing. Some of those ghosts are welcomed.
One of the major themes of Samhain is the return of the ancestors. Those who have died (especially recently) are expected to come home on Samhain. Cakes and other food are prepared and laid out in anticipation of their return. A chair is set by the fire so these returning souls can rest and warm themselves after their long journey back from the Otherworld.
But not all of supernatural visitors are looking for a peaceful reunion. Some ghosts come back to settle scores, so if you and your neighbor had a feud going on when he died, you might want to disguise yourself (maybe with a mask or costume) for the night.
As for the faeries…well, you can never tell with faeries. They’re capricious and easily offended. An unsuspecting human can find herself cursed for life simply for not saying "Good evening" to a faerie. Also, some faeries use Samhain's Eve to kidnap humans for brides or slaves. Then there are the Sluagh Sidhe (see below) who are out hunting human souls. The best advice for Samhain’s Eve is to stay indoors after dark. Leave some cream and cake on the porch as an offering to the Good People, say a blessing, lock the doors and windows, and go to bed early.
There are beautiful themes associated with Samhain. At a glance it seems to be about the long, cold dark of winter, a metaphor for death. However, looking at the fire festival from a Celtic spirituality perspective reveals it’s actually about the belief in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It also is about hope. At Samhain, the old year ends but a new one begins. The year starts in the cold dark sparseness of winter, but it will move towards new life, sprouting in spring and moving to the height of sunlight and warmth at mid-summer, then it ends with an abundant harvest at Lughnasa. Samhain is the start of something good!
Halloween Decorations and Symbols with Samhain Origins
Many traditional Halloween decorations have their roots in the celebration of Samhain.
Autumnal Things (autumn leaves, scarecrows, corn, apples, squashes, grain): Samhain marks the beginning of winter, but it also is the tail end of autumn. Anything fall-related is appropriate to this holiday.
Bonfires: Samhain is a fire festival. Traditionally, a communal bonfire was at the heart of the celebration. All other fires were extinguished. The communal bonfire was lit and blessed, then community members used sticks or torches to take a piece of the blessed fire home. They relit their fireplaces with the communal fire. The new blessed fire was believed to ward off malignant spirits and all dark powers.
Candles / lanterns: Same as above. The Samhain theme of we get through darkness with light.
Ghosts and Haunted Houses: Remember it’s time for the return of the ancestors and for visitors from the Otherworld pouring into this world. Also, since death is a Samhain theme, graveyards, skeletons, skulls, and the Grim Reaper are appropriate. Thus, carrion birds, such as crows and ravens fit this theme too. One Celtic folklore character I’d like to see added to Halloween celebrations is the Irish banshee, a faerie woman whose wail warns of the impending death of a family member.
Supernatural Beings: the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest at Samhain / Halloween, so supernatural beings flood our world on All Hallows’ Eve. That opens the door (metaphorically) to all sorts of characters. Bring on the vampires, zombies, werewolves, witches, and company! Again, I’d like to add to the list: faeries. Yes, bring back the faeries! Along with ghosts, they are the main Samhain visitors.
Goodies for the Visitors: Just as the ancient Celts set out food for their ghostly ancestors, we need to have food ready for those who come to visit us on Halloween, the ghosts, the faeries, the little goblins who yell, "Trick or Treat!"
One such annual visitor is the Cat Sidhe (Irish) or the Cat Sith (Scottish). This is a faerie who appears in the form of a black cat. He goes from house to house. If the inhabitants have left a bowl of cream out for him, he will bless the family. But woe to those who have not! This faerie will curse the family with life-long misfortune. A lot worse than having your house TP’d!
Bats: each Samhain’s Eve, the Sluagh Sidhe, a nasty and scary faerie collective with skeletal bodies and bat-like wings fly out of the Oweynagat (Cave of the Cats) in Ireland to go in search of souls to steal. They look like crows or bats flying in the night sky. (You don’t want to see them up close!) Read more about them here.
Fortune-telling Cards / Crystal Balls: Samhain is a highly magical time. During the Samhain communal celebration, druids would use divination to predict what the coming year would be like. Individual community members also used divination to find out about romance and just have fun. Fortune-telling and other divination activities continued to be a part of the entertainment of a Celtic All Hallows’ celebration well into the Christian era.
Jack o’ Lanterns: Pumpkins are an autumnal squash, so go for it! Jack O’ Lanterns aren’t Samhain-based in their origin, but their roots are in Celtic folklore. To learn more, read the story of Stingy Jack here.
As you can see, a Celtic Halloween is rich with characters, themes, and decorations. So enough already with ax and chainsaw, violence and gore, creepy crawly and gross-out Halloweens. It’s time to return the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve to its Samhain roots and its mystical, magical, hope-based themes.
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Slán go fóill
All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.