Halloween is very much a global festival these days that many people in continental Europe tend to mainly associate with North America. But where did Halloween really originate and how did it come to be observed around the world?
The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the Gaelic festival of Samhain that was celebrated in pagan times in the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Mann. (Celtic peoples in other lands held similar festivals under different names.) Samhain was the most important of the “Quarter Days” of the year as it marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, or the “dark half of the year”. It is believed that this would have probably originally taken place around the 7th of November as this would have been the midway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Although the Celts thought in terms of seasons and didn’t number years, Samhain would have also been their equivalent to New Year’s Eve as the end of the harvest was the end of their year. With the arrival of the Romans and their western branch of Christianity Samhain came to be celebrated instead on All Hallow’s Day (All Saints’ Day) on 1 November. For Celts the day began and ended with the sunset and so celebrations began at dusk on the evening before All Hallow’s Day, or All Hallow’s Eve, and this term eventually evolved to become “Halloweven” and then “Hallowe’en“, with the apostrophe nowadays being commonly omitted. With 2 November being All Souls’ Day in the western Christian calendar, this became a three day festival from 31 October till 2 November. The Celtic peoples of Brittany, Wales and what is now England (long before the Angles & Saxons arrived) had a similar festival called Calan Gaeaf.
The Celts believed that the divide between this world and the “Otherworld” was at its thinnest during Samhain and that spirits, both good and evil, were at their most active and could cross from one world to the other. It was common practice to set a place at the table for the spirits of departed loved ones who might return to their former homes seeking hospitality, and also to leave out offerings for the “Fairy Folk”, who were both respected and feared. Failure to do so could result in livestock dying or a poor harvest the following year, so it was better to stay on their good side!
Lots of rituals and games took place during the festivities that were supposed to predict good or bad fortune for the year ahead. Apples and nuts were involved in many of these fortune-telling games and bonfires also began to be common in later centuries, either to ward off the devil or scare away evil spirits (depending on the region), although the Christian church did their best to ban these “pagan” practices.
Trick or treat!
The custom of “guising” began around the 16th century in Ireland and Scotland which involved (dis)guising oneself as one of the Fairy Folk and going from door to door reciting verses of poetry in exchange for food. The disguise was intended to both encourage the people within to be generous with their offerings and also to protect the wearer from the Fairy Folk themselves! By the 18th century the “guisers” would dress up as malignant spirits rather than Fairy Folk with the implied “threat” of bad fortune if they were not well received. In other words, we’ll play a “trick” on you if you don’t give us a “treat”; although the expression “trick or treat” itself surfaced later in North America. In Ireland the “guisers” would often travel in groups with one member leading them, dressed as a hobby horse.
The origins of carving Jack-o-Lanterns from pumpkins has its origins in the legend of “Stingy Jack”. Here’s the short version of the story! Jack was a liar, thief and drunkard, known around the towns and villages of Ireland for his all-round debaucherous behaviour. But Jack also had a way with words and a silver tongue. When it came his time to die and the devil appeared to take him to hell because of his evil life, Jack managed to trick the devil into giving him ten more years to live. When the devil returned after the ten years he was deceived by Jack’s trickery a second time and this time was forced by Jack into promising that he would never ever take him to hell. The devil was livid but could do nothing.
Some time later when Jack eventually did die he made his way to the gates of heaven but was forbidden entry due to his aforementioned evil life and told to “go to hell”. When he reached hell the devil laughed at him and told Jack he couldn’t let him in as per their previous arrangement and that he’d have to wander in the netherworld, neither in heaven nor in hell, for all eternity until judgement day. When Jack complained that he didn’t know his way around the dimly lit netherworld, the devil mockingly tossed him a burning ember of coal to help him find his way on his endless wanderings. Jack hollowed out a turnip within which to carry the ember and so the legend of “Jack of the Lantern” was born. The ghostly glow of his lantern was seen most often around Halloween and also around the corresponding feast of Bealtaine on 1 May, when the division between this world and the supernatural was equally thin.
Dúlachán: the headless horseman
Another character in Irish mythology that often made an appearance in the days leading up to Halloween (although he could appear at other times too) was An Dúlachán, a headless horseman on a magnificent black steed, usually carrying his head under his arm. In some versions the Dúlachán rode on a wagon with human thigh bones for wheel spokes and used a human spine as a whip. Unlike the banshee, who came to warn of coming death, the horseman gave no warning. Wherever he stopped and called out a person’s name, that person would die instantly. Often he would hold his head up high to better see over great distances and there was no escaping him. If you were “lucky” the Dúlachán would not stop as he passed you and only blind you in one eye!
So why is Halloween “American”?
In the 19th century, after the United States had gained its independence from Britain, European immigrants began to flood across the Atlantic, bringing their stories, legends, customs and superstitions with them, amongst them many Irish. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States and by 1930 over 4.5 million Irish had immigrated over the previous 100 years. As a result, many elements of Irish culture, including Halloween, unsurprisingly became part of the folklore of their new home, blending with other cultures along the way to give rise to the emerging American culture. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the headless horseman, with a carved pumpkin in place of his head in some versions, for example, has much in common with myths from the “old countries” of Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia and Britain.
In America the larger and softer native pumpkin was easier to work with and so replaced the turnip for Halloween carving, and it also became associated with Thanksgiving which follows a few weeks after Halloween (in the U.S.) on the last Thursday of November. (The most popular Thanksgiving dessert is pumpkin pie!)
As we all know, Americans are good at marketing and once Halloween became part of mainstream culture it was only a matter of time before it became commercialised and started to make its way around the world and gradually become the festival we know today.
Halloween in Spain
Halloween in its current form in Spain is very much a transplant from America, although it wasn’t too difficult an adaptation as Spain already had its own celebrations around All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. Here it is a three day affair, beginning on 31 October with Dia de las Brujas (Day of the Witches), continuing with Dia de Todos los Santos (All Saints Day) the following day and finishing with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on 2 November. In fact, long before the commercialised American version of Hallowe’en became a thing worldwide, El Dia de los Muertos was already being observed across the Spanish-speaking world, particularly in Mexico and many other Latin American countries, brought by Spanish conquistadors centuries ago – but that’s a whole other story for another day! Traditionally, the Spanish/Latin version was far more solemn than the American one although, in more recent years, younger people especially have been incorporating the more fun elements into the older, traditional rituals. Halloween, or Dia de las Brujas, in particular has caught on as a night to party as the following day is a public holiday in Spain. The following day is when those same revellers probably feel like death, but El Dia de los Muertos is a day for visiting graves properly remembering and honouring those loved ones already departed.
Continuing in a ghoulish vein, a traditional sweet snack at this time of year in Spain is “bones of saints” – well, at least sweets made to look like bones, complete with bone marrow no less, known as huesos de santo. White marzipan is rolled around a coloured filling and made to look like bones. This is common all around Spain but especially in Castilla-León, while there are other variations to be found in other regions. More common in Catalunya, Valencia and the Balearic Islands is the panellet, or “little bread” in Catalan, which is a small cake made with marzipan and almonds and usually covered with pine nuts. Panellets are typical round but can be seen in all shapes and designs, including ossos de sant (saint’s bones again).
In Barcelona and other larger towns of Catalunya many bars and nightclubs will put on fancy dress Halloween fiestas and the like, but Catalans also have their own traditional customs to commemorate the dead. In fact, many Catalans will insist they celebrate La Castanyada rather than Halloween, an autumn festival that has its origins in the 18th century and a traditional meal that was served at a funeral, consisting of vegetables, chestnuts and the aforementioned panellets. Some Catalans are actually quite resistant to Halloween, which they regard as American commercialization and globalisation its worst!
In the old days the rosary would be recited in memory of deceased family while the chestnuts were being roasted. Nowadays there are probably far fewer rosaries said during a typical Castanyada but the chestnuts are as popular as ever. They are usually eaten along with moniatos (sweet potatoes), followed by panellets and washed down with a local sweet moscatel wine. Starting a couple of days before La Castanyada, on the feast of St Narcis on 29 October, you will usually see chestnut vendors, known as castanyers, selling hot roasted chestnuts along with sweet potatoes wrapped in newspaper on the streets of most towns in Catalunya.
Back in the day Catalans were very superstitious and fearful of witches and had all sorts of “espentes bruixes” (witch repellents). For example, jagged pieces of iron, tiles or stones were often built into rooftops to prevent witches from making a comfortable landing and bringing bad luck to the household below. The bruixes were believed to do most harm to animals, so these espentes were often placed on barn roofs to protect the harvest and livestock and In some of the older villages they can still be seen to this day.
Nowadays, of course, witches are no longer feared but rather incorporated into fairs and festivals. The small town of Sant Feliu Sasserra not far from Vic holds an annual two day Fira de les Bruixes, or Witch Festival, (29 Oct – 01 Nov) with dramatic reenactments commemorating the 400+ supposed witches all over Catalunya that were put to death by the Inquisition in the Middle Ages – 23 of them in that village alone! Click on the link above to see the programme of events.
Given its Celtic roots, it is not surprising that a festival rather more similar to Halloween, or Magosto as it is called in Gallego, is observed in Galicia more than any other part of Spain. Local folklore has plenty of ghost stories of its own and the night of 31 October is known in Gallego as Noite dos Calacús (Night of the Pumpkins) and is celebrated with various activities such as pumpkin carving, costume parties, bonfires amongst other rituals. Traditionally drunk at Halloween is queimada, a strong alcoholic drink prepared in a pumpkin and made from aguardiente, whole coffee beans, lemon or orange peel and sugar. These days most people use a specially designed clay pot and cups rather than a pumpkin, which is probably for the best! The name queimada is entirely appropriate as aguardiente means “burning water” and queimada in Gallego means “burnt”, and the mixture is consumed only after being set alight and a spell called an esconxuro recited while holding up a ladleful of the burning liquid and pouring it back into the pot or pumpkin. If it doesn’t kill you it is supposed to protect you from evil. Good luck!