With Halloween coming up on October 31st, I have been wondering what my Celtic forefathers would have thought about this modern day Halloween affair.
Of course, it wasn’t called Halloween and there were no trick or treats and the handing out of sweets. No, in early England my ancestors, the Brigantes, Celtic Britons who in pre-Roman times controlled the largest section of what would become Northern England, called it Samhain. This festival was not the time for smiling and playing childish games for it had a more sinister, dark side.
The Samhain festival marked the beginning of a new seasonal cycle or the first day of winter.
Farmers lead their herds down from the upper grasslands to shelter in the protection of the village enclosures before winter took hold. The harvests had been completed and the people readied themselves for the long dark winter ahead. The celebration symbolised the line between summer and winter and good and evil, or the night of the dead. It was believed that that around this time the ghosts of the dead would visit their families for one last time and with them came evil spirits. It was hoped that large fires in each village would protect inhabitants from the evil spirits that arose from the depths or darkness and mayhem.
The Brigantes believed that the souls of those who had died that year progressed to the underworld on this night. It was said to be a night when ghosts, demons and witches roamed the earth and people tried to placate them with offerings of nuts and berries. The dead were honoured through the burning of a sacred, communal bonfire built by the druids. The bones of sacrificed animals were cast onto the flames, which incidentally forms the origins of the word ‘bonfire’. People from the community brought harvest food for a great feast and some wore costumes made from animal skins or heads so that the evil spirits couldn't recognise them. Solo rites as well as ceremonies, feasts, and gatherings were initiated to honour their forefathers.
Bonfires, burning torches, chanting, ritualistic dancing and the sacrificing of animals would have been the order of the day. The chants and fires would aid those who had died in the year into the afterlife. Food was prepared for the living and the dead as the days got shorter and the nights longer.
Incidentally, this festival is still practiced by Witches, Wiccans, Druids, and other Pagans around the world, so the next time you knock on somebody's door and yell 'trick or treat' take care lest you find yourself at the gateway to the Otherworld.
Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of two novels:
Skulduggery- An exciting, mysterious, fictional and historically accurate adventure pulls no punches about the life and hardships of peasant farmers living on the moors of Yorkshire in 1590.
Winter of Red- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the very end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642.
Dream of Courage-Coming Soon