Samhain and the Unreal History of Halloween
“And I am glad these Druid priests
Once celebrated Celtic feasts,
And from the history I ween
That’s how we get our Hallowe’en.”
—Jane A. Stewart, 1913
“You really don’t know much about Halloween. You thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy! It was the start of the year in our old clans, and we’d be waiting in our houses of wattle and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal. The dead might be looking in, to sit by our fires of turf. Halloween—the festival of Samhain! The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red, with the blood of animals and children. Part of our world. Our craft. To us it was a way of controlling our environment. It’s not so different now. It’s time again. In the end, we don’t decide these things, you know, the planets do. They’re in alignment, and it’s time again. The world’s going to change tonight, Doctor, I’m glad you will be able to watch it. And Happy Halloween!”
—Conal Cochran, Halloween III: Season of the Witch
A dark night at the end of October, somewhere in Ireland, two thousand years ago. From hill to hill, bonfires blaze, a hundred separate suns, their embers rising up into the cold autumn sky. Cloaked and hooded figures process home by torchlight, silhouetted against the dark barrows and the burning hills, the air reverberating with spirits streaming across the dying fields, the lonely souls of ancestors, the unruly spirits of the unhappy dead, goddesses and giants, elves and fairies, and the people with their great patience and their fragile torchlight, praying for the sun to be born again from the dark womb of the world.
This is what we imagine of Samhain, Halloween’s earliest ancestor, and yet we know almost nothing about that holiday or the ancient Celts who celebrated it, including whether or not it is actually Halloween’s earliest ancestor.
In Jack Santino’s collection of scholarly papers on the holiday, Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, under the heading Material Culture, cultural historian Carl B. Holmberg investigates “the audeography of ritual noise;” in this case, that of the noisemakers sometimes carried by trick or treaters. In his section on “Precursors of North American Noisemaking.” Holmberg draws a line from a Pagan ritual performed in County Cork to the homemade noisemakers used by American kids in the early part of the 20th century, later supplanted by mass-produced commercial versions like the type he bought at five-and-dime stores in the Cleveland, Ohio area as a small child in the 1950s. He hazards that “noisemaking itself may be a vestige of the hunting tradition of prehistoric peoples,” citing the use by early human hunters of noisemaking devices similar to the ones he bought at the five-and-dime. “Perhaps,” he concludes, “trick or treating as a whole is a vestige of ancient roots; clearly, even today children gather fattening goodies just before the privation of winter, but not so long ago they used noisemakers while on the hunt.”
It is clear why anthropologists and historians are invested in drawing these connections—it’s their job—but less clear why the average person should be invested in the supposedly ancient origins of Halloween. And yet many of both Halloween’s supporters and its detractors remain committed to the notion that Halloween is really pagan, really Celtic, whether the idea is promulgated by modern Pagans seeking to reclaim Samhain as a more authentic version of Halloween, or Christian conservatives seeking to ban the holiday for its connection to Paganism and, as we shall see next week, devil worship.
A 2013 New York Times article profiling Neo-Pagans in Baltimore and New York effuses, “[Samhain] may share its DNA with Halloween, but the two are about as closely related as a toy poodle and a wolf. Where modern Halloween is mercantile, Samhain is magical; where Halloween is juvenile, Samhain is adult. Or try this: You celebrate Halloween by nibbling on candy; you celebrate Samhain by pouring whiskey over a bonfire.” No matter that Samhain was likely celebrated by children (and Halloween by adults), the choice is clear. Halloween is safe, boring, babyish. Samhain is rugged, authentic, and manly, even as a holiday largely associated with goddess worship. Still, even the enraptured reporter can’t resist a snider reference to the Neo-Pagans’ witchy set dressing purchased from Michael’s craft supply store. Plastic skulls, alas, are not authentic enough. It’s a narrative we shall see again and again, in all the sections that follow, one that traces a story of decline, from the proud and noble Celts to the Baby Boomers with their dime-store treasures to kids today, with their bland, store-bought costumes and shopping-mall trick or treating. It feels true even when it’s not.
Historians generally agree that Halloween began as Samhain, a harvest festival held every year on October 31 throughout the British Isles. Except very little is known about Samhain, or the many other ancient harvest festivals that were celebrated in northwestern Europe, and most of what we think we know was created hundreds of years later, a mixture of romantic imagination, confabulation, and outright deceit. Some historians don’t believe Halloween is related to Samhain at all. Other historians cite entirely different roots for the holiday, including an ancient Roman harvest festival for the goddess Pomona, as well as Parentalia and Lemuria, two different ancient Roman festivals for the dead. There were also Germanic festivals of the dead held in late October. In cultures all over the Northern Hemisphere, late October is associated with both the harvest and the remembrance of one’s ancestors, often celebrated with feasting and firelight. The core elements of Halloween—costumes, ghost stories, trick or treating—are common to holidays all over the world, and in the early United States, these activities were as likely to be performed on Mardi Gras, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Guy Fawkes Day, or Christmas as on Halloween night. And yet this Halloween, what would become our Halloween, is haunted by the Celts, and their long, unsettled afterlife.
The Druidic priests who may have led celebrations of holidays like Samhain did not keep written records, and much of what we know about them was recorded by other ancient peoples of Europe or transmitted orally before being reconstructed at a much later date by Christian sources. Nearly everything written about them was written by outsiders or enemies, and most is condescending, self-serving, romantic, and often all three. We don’t know what gods the ancient Celts worshiped or why. We don’t know that the Druids were priests, at least in the conventional sense of that word, nor what types of rituals they might have performed if they were. And so, reader, to every sentence that follows, add a “maybe.”
The Wheel of the Year
Samhain was the Celtic New Year, the first and most important holiday of the year. The tenth-century Irish text Tochmarc Emire calls it the first of the four quarter days, followed by Yule, Imbolc, and Beltane. Samhain celebrated the turn in the natural year, the night when the world changed from the bright, warm seasons of spring and summer to the dark, cold seasons of fall and winter. The origin and meaning of the word Samhain has long been contested, but the most likely meaning is “summer’s end.” (Charles Vallancey, an eighteenth-century British military engineer and amateur Celtist, claimed with no evidence that Samhain was named after the Celtic god of death, an error that continues in many popular histories to this day.)
Except it might not have been the new year. This assertion, repeated everywhere in both popular and academic texts, is based in part on a series of lectures delivered by the Welsh scholar Sir John Rhys in 1886, and later picked up by the notoriously slipshod Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer. By all accounts a sound researcher, Rhys based this belief on both Welsh folklore and his own field work on the Isle of Man, but it remains a conjecture at best. The second-century Coligny calendar, engraved on a bronze tablet found in France, suggests that the new year was celebrated on May 1, with the holiday Beltane. Other scholars suggest the new year may have begun at the summer or winter solstices, or at the autumn equinox. The Celtic calendar, its uses, and its holidays remains the subject of a great deal of scholarship and an intense debate among modern practitioners of Pagan religions derived from Celtic sources. The website Druidcraft attempts to reconcile the various calendrical systems and also sells a lovely laser-etched birch wheel with eight pegs for 89.99 pounds, suggesting that the daily adjustment of the pegs might serve as a sort of mini-ritual in itself
In fact, the exact dates of European, pre-Christian holidays remain a surprisingly contentious topic. In the early 19th century, there arose the theory that the victims of early modern witchcraft trials had in fact been Pagans, who persisted in celebrating pre-Christian rituals into the modern age. The 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet promulgated the idea that accused witches were in effect Pagan martyrs, men and women who adhered to a gentler, more liberal religion than Christianity, one that emphasized creativity, freedom, and fellowship with nature. By the end of the century this theory had achieved wide popularity though it was not supported by any real evidence or accepted by scholars who studied witchcraft trials.
The archaeologist Margaret Murray was a strong adherent of this theory, however, as well as the originator of many of current Neo-Pagan practices, including the most widely celebrated holidays. Murray claimed that these accused witches had practiced a form of Paganism effectively unchanged from prehistoric sources and so looked to their statements at trial for clues to the beliefs and practices of ancient Pagans. She also relied on extremely scanty evidence—only one of all the thousands of recorded witchcraft trials mentions an accused witch acknowledging these supposedly important festival nights. Historian Ronald Hutton concludes, “The fact that Margaret Murray used this single case as the peg on which to hang a major aspect of an entire assumed religion fits in with her usual methods when writing on witchcraft.”
While Margaret Murray’s conclusions were roundly rejected by scholars, her influence was substantial, not least because of her friendship with Gerald Gardner, the creator of Wicca. Gardner was initially a member of a Neo-Druidic order, though his dissatisfaction with the group prompted him to found his own Neo-Pagan faith. Gardner found the British Druids of his era too obviously artificial and created Wicca as a more authentic form of European witchcraft, of the very type he believed to have doomed so many unhappy witches in centuries past. Gardner and Murray admired one another, and in the 1940s Gardner created the Wiccan liturgy drawing from Murray’s dubious research, with quotes from Rudyard Kipling and Aleister Crowley jostling with a portion of a 13th-century French miracle play. Gardner also wrote a liturgy specifically for Samhain.
Following Murray, Gardner initially only supported the celebration of the four quarter days (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh) but grudgingly agreed to add the four equinoxes (Yule, Ostara, Litha, and Mabon) after pressure from other coven members. And so the ancient wheel of the year was born from a compromise between different factions of English archaeologists and antiquarians in the 1950s. What’s more, this wheel was then generalized from specifically ancient Celtic Paganism to a sort of pan-European pre-Christian system of beliefs and practices, in some cases extending even beyond Europe. Witches are basically Druids, Samhain is basically Halloween, and so the influence of the Celts becomes both wider and more diffuse, no longer a fact but a feeling.
Ancient Bardic Rituals
As the beginning of a new year, Samhain was an administrative holiday, when three days of feasting and games were punctuated with debt repayment, criminal trials, and executions. Winter lodgings were established for itinerant workers, including agricultural laborers, warriors, and priests. Farmers bought and sold land, renewed or renegotiated rental agreements and contracts, hired laborers, and traded livestock. As the ancient Celts prepared for winter, they harvested and preserved fruits, vegetables, and grains; repaired and reinforced their homes; and brought livestock in from the summer grazing fields. The strongest and best livestock would be brought indoors for the winter, while the rest were slaughtered. There was an abundance of food available from the harvest and the slaughter, including alcohol from harvested honey and grain. The bonfires also served as a form of revenue generation. Before Samhain began, all private home fires were extinguished, and the Druids created a communal bonfire on the hill at Tlachtga. The Celts took brands, lit them from the communal Samhain fire, and used them to rekindle their home hearth for a new year. And the Druids charged for these brands, a sort of annual fire tax. The fires probably also cleared off the debris left over from the third and final harvest of the year.
Still, no one is sure what exactly the bonfires meant. Popular histories of Halloween variously claim they were to frighten away evil spirits, to guide benevolent spirits, to send the sun to rest in the winter, or ensure its return in the spring. Likely it was some of all of these, spread across hundreds of miles and thousands of years and many individual people with their own idiosyncratic beliefs. Contemporary historians ascribe many ritual activities to Samhain: “these practices might be loosely grouped as dispelling evil spirits, calling home spirits of the beloved dead, divining the future, and propitiating nature and its spirits.” Many Celtic myths take place on Samhain, and storytelling was an important part of the holiday, an early example of the winter storytelling tradition that would lead in time to Christmas ghost stories. There are stories of otherworldly encounters, the return of the dead, of prophecies and visions. They were likely recited or sung by bards, as part of a long tradition of Celtic poetry, performance, and song, and like the legendary heroes of Samhain tales, the bardic tradition has been resurrected again and again.
The fake bardic ceremony has a venerable history of its own, one that reaches back to at least the 18th century, if not the fifth. In 1838, the Vicomte Théodore Claude Henri Hersart de la Villemarqué, age 23, visited Abergavenny, Wales, and after wrote to his father back home in Brittany, “I am a bard now, truly a bard! a ‘titled bard!’ and I have been received according to the ancient rituals of the 5th and 6th centuries, handed down to our time.” In fact, he had been received into Gorsedd Cymr, a sort of ancient Celtic LARPing club whose faux-Druidic rites that had been established four decades earlier by Edward Williams, a Welsh poet who adopted the bardic name Iolo Morganwy. In 1792, Edward Williams/Iolo Morganwy founded Gorsedd Cymr, sometimes called a “secret society,” with the aim of reviving—or failing that, inventing—the culture of ancient, pagan Wales. He devised an ancient-seeming Welsh ceremony, the Maen Gorsedd, and grafted it onto the existing tradition of Eisteddfod, a poetry and musical competition first documented in 1176. Oxford archaeology professor Barry Cunliffe remarks rather huffily, “As a piece of pastiche [the Maen Gorsedd] was Celtomania at its worst and still it continues today, obscuring the genuinely ancient traditions of the original ceremony.”
Morganwy claimed to be the last living descendant of a line of Celtic bards that reached back into the furthest reaches of the past. As such, he took it upon himself to train new bards in the ancient tradition. He established three levels of certification (ovate, bard, and Druid) with qualifications for each, a hierarchy that is practiced by some Neo-Druids to this day. He also developed a complex and confusing theology that undergirded these bardic practices; one historian notes drily, “Williams’s reportedly heavy use of laudanum may have been a contributing factor.” Perhaps strangest of all, Morganwy was mixed up in a late-19th-century expedition to the American West in search of a tribe of “Welsh Indians,” an expedition funded by the Welsh fraternal Gwyneddigion Society. He was convinced of a myth, popular at the time, that a Welsh explorer named Prince Madoc ap Owain Gwynedd had discovered the Americas in 1170, three hundred years before Columbus, and established a colony of Welshmen that remained somewhere in North America in the 19th century where they may or may not have intermarried with native Americans or perhaps been accepted into their cultures. Wild and contradictory tales were attributed to these “Welsh Indians”—including that they founded the Aztec empire—but most agreed with Morganwy that the Welsh Indians were connected to the Mandan tribe that lived at that time in Missouri. Morganwy intended to travel to Missouri to seek out these Welsh-speaking native Americans. In his place, the Society sent the Welsh explorer John Thomas Evans, who did not succeed in making contact with any Welsh Indians but did succeed in producing a good early map of the Missouri River.
Morganwy was not alone in his quest to reclaim Druidry. Neo-Druidry was in fashion at the time, and these reclaimed Druids often conveniently believed whatever best served their modern practitioners needs, like the Anglican vicar William Stukeley, who imaged that the Druids followed a monotheistic faith nearly identical to Christianity. The same process was underway in Scotland, spurred in part by the romantic Highlander heroes of Sir Walter Scott. Having devastated the actual Highlands in a series of brutal evictions known as the Clearances, the English royal family was keen to take on the costumes of their culture. In 1822, King George IV visited Scotland, outfitting himself in the tartan costume that’s still worn by members of the English royal family to this day. There was a mania for all things perceived as Scottish, including kilts, folk dancing, sports like caber toss—and, of course, Halloween.
One such self-styled bard was Scott James Macpherson, who in 1760 published a volume of poetry ponderously titled Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language. Two longer epic poems followed. Macpherson claimed these were his translations of poems by the ancient Celtic bard Ossian, from manuscript sources that went back to 400 or 500 CE, which he had located and translated into modern English. In fact, writes, “it is now generally believed that no such manuscripts existed and that Macpherson wrote the poems himself to provide Scotland with an epic tradition worthy of Homer.” (In a surprising reversal, La Villemarqué was likewise charged with falsifying “authentic” Celtic ballads, only for later historians to find that many of La Villemarqué’s discoveries were, in fact, genuine Breton folk ballads after all.)
Neo-Druidism in America soon followed. Established in Placerville, California, in 1860, the United Ancient Order of Druids) of California started as a fraternal society whose primary purpose was to support the wives and children of miners killed in the Sierra Nevada gold rush. On their website, they explain, “It has its origins in England, but is not associated with the sacrificial Druids of Stonehenge. The Order is based on the ancient Druids beliefs of benevolence and education and was founded on sound morality.” However, by the turn of the century, these Druids, too, adopted more expressly pagan elements. To their core virtues of Justice, Morality, and Brotherly Love the California Druids added the Seven Precepts of Merlin, whom they call “one of Druidism’s early teachers.” On the Druids of California webpage, former Noble Arch member John Zeni traces the history of modern Druids to the Revolutionary period when, according to the Druids, the political unrest and social upheaval caused by the war between the United States and Britain, in combination with other factors including “religious agitations, aimed against the spread of papistry of Roman doctrines” and “the march of republicanism in France” gave rise to the desire for a secular, nonsectarian social club for “men of respectability and good manners.” These well-mannered men met, first in England and later in America, under the banner of Druidism in homage to the semi-mythical priests who “introduced among the ancient Britons the useful and polite arts.” A 1907 article in the Los Angeles Herald covered a gathering of Neo-Druids from groves all over California gathering in the city for the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Ancient Order of the Druids. Nearly 800 Neo-Druids arrived in the city, including the Women’s Auxiliary Druidesses, a female counterpart to the primary, all-male group. The newspaper added that “The Druidesses will be entertained by a committee of the wives of the members of the executive committee” with a program of social activities including a closing ball to be attended by the mayor.
The first explicitly religious Neo-Druidic group in America was founded as something of a joke in 1963, when a group of students at Carleton College in Minnesota protested the college’s requirement that all students attend a weekly meeting of an organized religion of their choosing by creating the Reformed Druids of North America. The college dropped their worship attendance requirement the following year, but the students (a mixture of Christians, Jews, and atheists) found they enjoyed their weekly RDNA meetings and continued to hold them. Over time, the RDNA developed into a sincere Neo-Pagan religious group with branches throughout the United States, while offshoot organizations retained their original ecumenical bent, with groups of Zen Buddhist Druids and Hasidic Jewish Druids. At the same time, Neo-Druidism sprang up in the 1960s counterculture around San Francisco, where Aidan Kelly created his own rituals and liturgies for the Wheel of the Year—but unlike his British counterparts, he did not make claims of authenticity. Instead, he openly admitted to creating his own, new rites, drawing from Gardner and Murray but also King Arthur stories and The Lord of the Rings.
While Neo-Druids in the United States were eagerly reestablishing supposedly ancient bardic practices, American-style Halloween made its way back across the Atlantic. The hill of Tlachtga in Boyne Valley, Ireland, is believed to have been the site of the first bonfires on the eve of Samhain. Druidic priests would light the fires and twelve miles away on the hill of Tara, the kings of Ireland would see the blazes and know the new year had begun. On Boyne Valley’s official tourism website, Discover Boyne Valley, there is an evocative description of these Halloween festivities, including legends of the sun goddess Tlachtgla, for whom the hill is named, and Techtmar, a “semi-legendary high-king” who built the hillfort of Tlachtgla. Visitors to the area today can celebrate with The Spirits of Meath, a month-long Halloween festival encompassing historical reenactments, nature hikes, whiskey tastings, storytelling, speed dating, a scavenger hunt, a children’s art festival, guided ghost tours through a local museum, and a wellness retreat featuring sound therapy, yoga, forest bathing, meditation, vegan dining, and chi gung alongside a fire ceremony that promises “deepening our connections with Nature and Mother Earth whilst gathering to celebrate the arrival of Halloween and the Festival of Samhain.” They also offer an American-style haunted maze with four themed sections: Carnevil, Purge Night, Momma’s Murder Maze, and WWII Zombies: “the Third Reich army have risen from the dead to seek revenge on those who buried them. You and your squad must answer the call of duty and end the war once and for all. Your mission is simple: Send the Undead Army back to Hell!”
The Hidden People
The first question about the Celts is, did they exist at all? Certainly, someone lived in Great Britain and Ireland two thousand years ago. There is ample archaeological evidence of an Iron Age culture in that part of the world, one that practiced sophisticated metalwork and left behind large-scale structures—though notably not Stonehenge, which was long thought to be a Druidic temple before archaeological evidence revealed it was constructed by successive waves of Neolithic people thousands of years before the Celts arrived in England from what was perhaps modern-day Germany and France.
The word “Celt” properly refers to a linguistic group, the speakers of the languages that would become Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Cornish and Manx. Popular histories of Halloween love to add that the name “Celt” translates to “the hidden people,” though it may translate to something else entirely, perhaps “the tall ones” or even “those who have left their seats.” It’s not even known if “Celt” itself is a Celtic word or a Greek one. The ancient Greeks had a very muddled sense of the rest of Europe, and variously ascribed different regions to the Keltoi, a loosely-defined group of Northern barbarians. Julius Caesar claimed Keltoi came from Celt, the Celts’ own word for themselves, but then Julius Caesar claimed a lot of things.
Much of our information about the ancient Celts comes first from the Greeks and later the Romans, who referred to the Celts as Gauls, a vast and varied group of enemies who lived in what would become France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and northern Italy. Julius Caesar, who made his political career on warring with the Gauls, wrote about them extensively. In his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, he describes the Druid priests who ruled the Celts, adding,
As a nation the Gauls are extremely superstitious; and so persons suffering from serious diseases, as well as those who are exposed to the perils of battle, offer, or vow to offer, human sacrifices, for the performance of which they employ Druids. They believe that the only way of saving a man’s life is to propitiate the god’s wrath by rendering another life in its place, and they have regular state sacrifices of the same kind. Some tribes have colossal images made of wickerwork, the limbs of which they fill with living men; they are then set on fire, and the victims burnt to death.
This terrible image of a burning wicker man, later accompanied by 18th-century illustrations, propelled Caesar’s Commentaries, which had previously been used primarily as a text for teaching basic Latin to schoolchildren, to popular fame. Later the Roman historian Strabo further embellished this theme, adding that the Celts were incestuous cannibals who cut off the heads of their enemies and embalmed them in cedar oil to keep as trophies or hold for ransom. Rumors of human sacrifice were later embroidered upon by Christian monks looking to inflate the importance of St. Patrick, though St Patrick himself never mentioned these sacrifices in his own writing.
James Frazer uncritically accepted this story of the wicker man, which made its way into his monumental work of comparative religion and mythology, The Golden Bough, from where it influenced the creators of the 1973 film The Wicker Man, who likewise took the story at face value. The filmmakers were criticized for their apparently uncritical acceptance of The Golden Bough with all its shoddy scholarship and colonialist projections. In an interview, director Robin Hardy confirmed that he took the idea of the wicker man from Frazer, whose work he believed to be an accurate description of ancient Celtic Pagan practices. And yet, within the film, it’s established that the murderous villagers are not engaged in authentic Celtic practices at all, but rather taking part in a modern ritual created by a 19th-century Englishman. Nonetheless the movie inspired a generation of Neo-Pagans to erect actual wicker men (albeit without human sacrifices inside), playacting at a ritual that was, in the film, a bit of playacting, based on the florid imaginings of classical authors. A legend that started out completely fanciful became real, in a process folklorists call “ostension”—but we’ll hear quite a bit more about ostension when we get to trick or treaters and poisoned Halloween candy, just you wait.
In fact, “Celts” were not widely considered to be a single, unified ethnic group before 1700. No evidence suggests that a Welsh person, an Irish person, and a French person all living at the time of Caesar would have considered themselves to be part of the same group. Nor is it known exactly how much regional variation existed across the thousands of miles of land at one time inhabited by the Celts, stretching at its height from Ireland to Turkey.
In the early 18th century, the Welsh linguist Edward Lhuyd differentiated between the Q-Celts, who first arrived in southeast Britain, and the P-Celts who came after, driving the Q-Celts north and west, where they mixed with the Scotti, a tribe already present in northern Britain. Lhuyd based these distinctions on differences in language between Welsh, Cornish, and Breton languages, on one hand, and Irish on the other. Of this theory, Cunliffe writes, “Here, then, we have the origins of the invasionist model that lies at the basis of the belief, still held in some circles, that Celtic invaders from the Continent introduced the Celtic languages into Britain and Ireland. It is predicated on the arguments that the languages of Britain and Ireland were introduced from the Continent and that they were the same as the languages spoken by people described by Classical writers as Celts. Both arguments, it must be stressed, are assumptions.”
The distinction between the two language groups persists, however, and is neatly summarized by Cunliffe:
The distinction is made on the basis of the pronunciation (and thus the spelling) of the qu sound. In Q-Celtic it remains as the hard q- or later k-, whereas in P-Celtic it softens to p-; thus in Irish ‘four’ is cethir and in Welsh pedwar. Although much was made of this distinction in the past, modern philologists have tended to play it down, stressing that it is only one, and perhaps not the most significant, of the differences between the various constituents of Insular Celtic.
This is all a bit dry, and to those of us who are not linguists it may seem of little consequence. My enjoyment of Halloween is not predicated on the different pronunciations of “qu.” Still, we can see these two strands knit together: the search for an authentic Halloween, and the elisions, generalities, and conjectures it takes to get there. In the popular imagination, the same people, or the same type of people, who lived in Ireland when St. Patrick arrived in 432 are the same type of people who fled famine to arrive in North America in the 19th century, bringing Halloween with them. To conclude that the beliefs and practices of these ancient people are the foundation of Halloween assumes that fragments of stories, reported by Romans, retold by medieval monks, and embellished by Victorian antiquarians, are all in some sense talking about the same holiday. Or, as the scholar Dimitra Fimi puts it, it relies “an assumed continuity between antiquity (classical accounts and Iron Age archaeology and medieval Irish and Welsh literature, very much challenged by modern scholarship.” Because something that was true everywhere from Ireland to India, at all times from 1000 BCE to yesterday, seems truer than something that is only true of the United States in the last century.
Next week we’ll talk about what happened when Christianity came to the Celts. Samhain, then Halloween, was transformed, from a maybe-festival to propitiate the waning sun to a rowdy encounter with the souls of the dead. From All Hallows’ Eve to the Victorian mania for all things Halloween to the postwar reinvention of a now distinctly American holiday, Samhain was subsumed into a global Christian and later secular context, but still more than 1500 years later, we remain attached to the idea of a real, authentic Halloween.
In 1964, the American writer Ken Marcrorie wrote a column in The North American Review in which he complained about kids today, whose tame holiday celebrations contrasted so starkly with the pranks of his youth. Marcrorie fondly reminisced about emptying “a whole can of garbage” onto an old woman’s front porch over some perceived and perhaps imaginary slight, before adding loftily, “I didn’t have to take anthropology to understand that societies employ such rituals to free the urges that can never be killed in man.”
Something about Halloween inspires this kind of grandiosity, in which the antics of schoolchildren become the last remnants of the true and noble spirit of mankind. It’s a holiday about life and death, love and fear, strangers and friends, darkness and light. These are big topics, the biggest ones, and there is no way to discuss them without sounding a little grandiose.
To a small child, Halloween night feels enormous, too big to hold onto. As an adult looking back, we can only imagine it as something grave and ancient, as elemental and imposing as Stonehenge, but all the best memories of Halloween are found in its specificity, its tin noisemakers. Writers like Marcrorie remember something small, a very particular place and time, and then connect it to a lot of big ideas to justify or explain it to themselves, because the feelings behind these things are so out of proportion. Perhaps the longing for authenticity is a longing for proportionality, for a tradition worthy of our biggest feelings. What we’re looking for is something—a rune, a spell, a god or demon—something adequate to the occasion. In imaging the old Samhain, we imagine a time when everything was on the same scale, when what is now silly and commonplace was sacred and serious. As we continue reading and thinking about Halloween, we may remember there was never one real story about Halloween, and our plastic skulls and shopping malls are no less magical and strange than blazing bonfires and wicker men.
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