Halloween Customs in the Celtic World
Paper given at the UWM Center for Celtic Studies Halloween Inaugural Celebration, on October 31, 2011
Introduction: Night of the spirits; Feast of the Dead; New Year’s Eve; the year’s turning; Calends of winter; Summer’s End; one of the “joints of the year”; beginning of the barren time; day of divination; festival of the harvest; doorway into the new year; Mischief Night; Punky Night; Samhain; Nos Calan gaeaf; All Hallow’s Eve. These are all descriptions of one of the most important seasonal festivals of the Celtic world, the night of October 31, this evening, Halloween. In Wales it is known as Hollantide, in Cornwall Allantide, and in Brittany Kala-Goanv. Samain’s equivalent on the Christian calendar is All Saints’ Day, introduced by the Catholic church partly to supplant the pagan festival of the dead.
Halloween’s counterpart is the other great “hinge of the year”, April 30, Beltain or May Day Eve, which marks the beginning of summer. To understand the significance of these seasonal festivals, we need to step back in time for a moment, closer to the food production cycle than most of us are today. In pre-Christian Europe, most important holidays were celebrated on the evening of the day before the actual date of the transition from one season to the next, since the easiest way of measuring the passing of time was by observing a complete cycle of the moon – the origin of the english word “month”.
Samhain was the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. It coincided with the rounding up of the herds for culling and penning, the storing of crops, and the beaching and repairing of fishing boats and gear, all in preparation for the coming winter. Warfare officially came to an end at Samhain, partly for practical reasons related to weather, but raiding, especially of cattle, seems to have peaked between Michaelmas (September 29) and Martinmas (November 11), at least in the Border region of Scotland, where we have 16th century accounts of such activity during this time. Herds under cover are concentrated and easier to steal, whereas before Lammas (August 1) the cattle were dispersed in the high shielings. According to one official writing in the 16th century, at Samhain “are the fells good and drie and cattle strong to drive”.