Once again, it’s time for donning costumes, trick-or-treating and telling ghost stories, while sitting around bonfires. That’s what’s going to be happening everywhere, very soon, as people gather for Halloween parties; and, even though it’s the end of October, many of these get-togethers will be held outdoors. So, a lot of folks will be firing up their grills, and eating at their picnic tables this weekend.
Sure, it may be a little chilly at this time of the year; but, so what? After all, people go to football games and sit outside, tailgating for hours, even when it’s snowing. Moreover, a lot of folks will be dressed in costumes, which will keep them warm; and there will probably be a lot of bonfires burning as well. In fact, the latter is practically a must; not only is it a great way to heat things up, but it’s an ancient ritual that has been an integral part of Halloween, since it was first observed, more than 2,000 years ago.
It is believed to have been originated by the Druids, a Celtic people who lived in and around Ireland and Northern Europe. It started out as a celebration, called Samhain, which meant “summer’s end,” or “November.” Actually, it was a huge New Year’s Eve party – except that it was “November Eve” – because it was held on October 31st, which was the last day of the Celtic year.
Samhain was an enormous harvest festival, which was full of rituals, including sacrificial fires that were built on hilltops. The Druids believed that these fires would pacify their gods and ensure that the sun would shine brightly, once again, after the long, dark winter. Because they would throw in the bones of slaughtered cattle, they began calling them “bone fires,” which, it is thought, is the origin of the word, bonfire. To this day, on Halloween night, hundreds of these traditional fires can still be seen all over the countryside in Ireland.
Other parts of the ceremonies involved story-telling, dancing, and singing. It was also customary for the participants to dress in the skins and heads of animals, disguising themselves as spirits and demons, in order that the actual spirits and demons wouldn’t be able to tell that they were human. This, of course, is supposed to be why people dress in costumes on Halloween.
Trick-or-treating is another Halloween practice that began in Ireland. To prepare for the holiday, which was changed to All Hallow’s Eve, by the church, poor people would visit the homes of the rich, and ask for food, money, and gifts, which they would put together for an enormous celebratory feast.
Naturally, it’s no surprise that those highly-imaginative Celts also began the tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns. As legend has it, a terrible man named Jack (O’Lantern, perhaps?) deceived the devil. When he died, he was not allowed in either heaven or hell, and so, was cursed to walk the earth forever. To keep evil spirits away from him, he is said to have made a lantern by carving out a turnip and placing a piece of burning coal into it. Now, of course, we use pumpkins to make jack-o-lanterns; but they are, purportedly, used for the same purpose, which is why they are placed outside of doorways.
Today, fortunately, we don’t have to worry about all of the terrifying myths of Halloween. Instead, we’re left with all of the fun parts, which include many entertaining stories that we can tell, while sitting around fires, or around our picnic tables.