As I’ve dived deeper into the ancient history and culture of Great Britain these last 12 months or so, purely out of personal interest, I’ve been delighted to discover just how many of our “modern-day” celebrations and traditions are far more ancient than I initially thought.
Modern or Ancient Traditions?
I’ve known since I was a pretty young child that Christmas, for example, was in fact a Pagan holiday allegedly hijacked by the early Christian church as a way to cement the new religion of Christianity on the people but allowing them to celebrate in a way and at a time they were used to, albeit under a different name. Originally known here as Yule by the Celts and later as Saturnalia following the Roman invasion, many of the traditions of Christmas such as decorating homes with holly, mistletoe and even decorating a tree clearly pre-date Christ’s birth. Why at this time of the year? It coincided with the Winter Equinox, a time that marks when the shortest day/longest night of the year, and was really a celebration of light and dark, like so many ancient celebrations.
I remember learning at school that Halloween was really All Hallows’ Eve, as 1 November was All Saints’ Day, being a day to remember Christian saints and martyrs. In fact, from what I’ve read since, Pope Boniface IV only created this celebration in the year 609 and purposely chose the date to coincide with the date Samhain was celebrated, again to replace the Pagan holiday.
More recently, as I started researching Samhain and how it used to be celebrated by the Celts, I was interested to note that bonfires would be lit. This raised the obvious question to me – is our modern day celebration of Bonfire Night here in the UK somehow linked to Samhain rather than Guy Fawkes? I can’t blame the Christian church for this (who I have nothing against by the way!) – whilst at the time there was a war waging between Protestants and Catholics and had been since the time of the Restoration, I think this was more a case of old habits of the people die hard, and celebrating Bonfire Night kept the old tradition alive, just for different reasons. It was a good way for those who still followed the old faith to practice the traditions of the ancient religion without arousing suspicion from those who would otherwise have called them witches and heretics. Confessing to being either Catholic or Pagan back then would likely lead to the same outcome – execution – frequently by burning!
Traditional Samhain Celebrations
Samhain was a 3-day festival honoured by the ancient Celtic pagans here in the UK during the time of the Iron Age, which means “summer’s end”, thus ushering in the Celtic new year. Some of the key themes believed to have been part of Samhain include:
- Cycle of death and rebirth celebrated as the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter;
- Final preparations for winter e.g. crops, animal sacrifices;
- Bonfires/fire festivals to mark the autumn equinox and the start of the dark half of the year;
- Visibility of the gods by humans, the occult and spirits from the Otherworld;
- Offerings left for visiting spirits;
- Playing of pranks and tricks;
- Fortune-telling for the year to come;
- Dressing up/costume wearing.
Do any of these look familiar?
When I was little, we were not allowed to go trick or treating as my mother classed it as “begging” and believed also that it was unsafe. We did go to family Halloween parties, bobbing for apples, dressing up usually in a black bin bag with witch face paint on and, with my mum’s birthday being on Bonfire Night, we usually celebrated that too by having a bonfire in the back garden and watching everyone else’s fireworks (being not very well off ourselves!).
Some people say that Halloween has become too “Americanised” but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. For our honeymoon, my husband and our kids went to Florida in October/November and if there’s one thing Americans do fantastically well in my view, it’s got to be Halloween!! Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights are fantastic and Disney’s Not So Scary Halloween equally fun for little ones. In the UK, Alton Towers and a lot of farms put on some great events too with Halloween being more popular than ever these days. What a wonderful way to keep the old beliefs and traditions of our ancestors alive and kicking for future generations!
I personally feel like I’ve really connected with the Samhain celebration this year. I love that traditionally it was a way to remember those who have gone on to the spirit world and I’ve now discovered that Bonfire Night may be linked to the festival too. My mum died at only 53 a few years ago and with Bonfire Night being her birthday, it has given a special day even more meaning for me.
The kids, me and the dog all went trick or treating and I was blown away by some of the effort people went to this year – fantastic and all in the name of good fun.
Now I’m off to put the pumpkins to good use and make a warming pumpkin soup for supper – yum!