A Celtic New Year
The Celts were a diverse tribe during what was referred to as the Iron Age—a prehistoric period when tools and cutting implements were made of iron. During the Roman era however, the society was made up of the Gaels, the Cornish, the Welsh and the Bretons, all peoples who spoke Celtic language. The origin of our Halloween began as a ceremony to celebrate a New Year’s festival that began on November 1st, in homage to Samhain, a change in season where animal sacrifices were made to the Lord of the Dead, Saman, and the sun.
This holiday also reflects the influence of medieval churchmen and in particular, Pope Gregory III, who declared November 1st as the feast of the departed Christian saints in the 18th century. It is the eve of All Hallows Day, or Hallow’s e’en that we now commemorate on October 31. It is also said that prayers were offered up to release the souls that waited in Purgatory for entry into Heaven.
This combination of both pagan and Christian holidays created a fascination with the dead, witches and other creatures. Masked and custom villagers representing the souls of the dead would parade to the outskirts of town to lead the ghosts away. The Christian contribution came in the form of relics of saints that parishioners displayed and some of them dressed up as their favorites.
In what was early Ireland, it was customary to extinguish the hearth fires at home, while waiting for the Druids to light the new year’s fire in a specific spot, the burial place of Tlachtga, daughter of a great Druid king. Objects were cast into the fire as gifts and supplicants. A hot brand would be then be taken back home to relight the home fires.
Beautiful, isn’t it? Except there is a darker purpose. It is said that during some rituals a solicitation was asked for in the name of Muck Olla, a shadowy figure who would promise to wreack vengeance on the ungenerous. It is thought that Muck Olla’s vengeance was, over time, transformed into that of slighted fairies and goblins, who relied on tricking disappointed revelers.
If O’Lantern sounds Irish, you’re on the right track. It originates from an old Irish custom of creating rustic lanterns from vegetables, not necessarily a pumpkin. Actually, a child’s lantern for a typical Halloween was created from a carved out potato or turnip. The American’s think bigger however, and thought the pumpkin would suit the purpose better.
But it all begins with the tale of Jack. Jack was a drinker and notoriously stingy. One Hallow’s Eve he spent his evening in a pub and chanced upon the Devil (where else would the evil one be?). The Devil saw an opportunity to claim Jack’s soul. And Jack was said to never back away from playing “tricks.” Apparently Jack had imbibed one too many and the Devil saw his chance to claim the old coger. Jack however had other plans. He made a deal with the Devil that, if he could have one last drink, he would happily follow him to Hades. But, problems ensued as Jack has no money for the final purchase. Jack asked the Devil if he might not change himself into a sixpence, he could have his drink and they would then go on their way together.
The Devil has an ego of course and was happy to shape-shift, showing off his prowess. Jack quickly popped him into his purse and refused to let him out unless the Devil promised not to claim his soul for ten years.
Ah, but there’s more. Ten years following the Devil came to collect his due, the soul of Jack. Jack said he would go but before they left could he ask for one last wish, an apple from one of the orchard trees. He asked if the Devil would stand on his shoulders to reach one of the fruits. No sooner had the Devil hoisted himself up when Jack carved a cross with his penknife in the trunk of the tree. This of course, left the Devil up the tree with no way to get down. Jack bargained for his soul back once again.
Unfortunately for Jack, the Devil had the final laugh. When Jack died, he was turned away from heaven for his sins and had nowhere to go but down. When Jack approached the entrance to Hell, the Devil refused him entry as per their agreement. Jack, left to wander in darkness, asked for a light to help him find his way. The Devil obliged by hurling a hot coal at him and Jack placed it inside a turnip he had—creating a poor man’s lantern. Jack was left to wander from that day on with his Jack O’Lantern. The Irish adopted the symbol as a way to ward off both evil spirits and poor old Jack.
For Additional Stories
The origins of Halloween, while both religious and cultural, are intriguing to folks all over the world. When you are out trick-or-treating this year, be sure to keep in mind how it all began. For more interesting stories, legends and fun facts, here are some useful resources below.
For an in-depth story about Celts and Samhain: https://www.chalicecentre.net/october-celtic-year.html
The Pumpkin Nook and their Jack version: https://www.pumpkinnook.com/facts/jack.htm (plus an exhaustive site about pumpkins)
The History Channel’s take on all things Hallloween: https://www.history.com/topics/halloween
Photos by Clipart.com via the Author’s subscription.
This post is part of the series: Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays
We take holidays for granted in that we celebrate them according to tradition, but where did the tradition come from? Why do we buy a Christmas tree? Why are hearts popular on Valentines? What is the reason we decorate pumpkins for Halloween? Find out in this series.
- The History of Valentine’s Day
- The Origin of Presidents' Day: Who Are We Celebrating?
- Who Was St. Patrick?
- Origin of April Fool’s Day
- The Science, History and Culture Behind the Spring Equinox
- Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays—Passover Seder
- Curious Customs & Stories Behind Mother’s Day
- History & Origins of Labor Day
- The Origins of Common Good Luck Traditions
- Three Superstitions and Their Origins
- The History of the Olympic Games
- What is All Hallows Eve? The Customs and Origins of Halloween
- The Origins of Thanksgiving: The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth