The Festival of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, is now a time for fun and dressing up. For the conjuring up of imaginary ghouls, horror films on television, and children out trick and treating with their parents. But in its origins it was a time of trepidation and a festival borne out of fear.
In recent years some scholars have suggested that it can be traced back to the Roman Feast of Pomona (the Goddess of Fruit and Seed) or to the Parentalia, the Roman Festival of the Dead.
It seems more likely, however, that Hallowe'en has its roots in the Celtic Festival of Samhain which can itself be traced back to the Celtic Celebration of the Dark Night, the Calan Gaeaf.
The Festival of Samhain was held to mark the end of the lighter half of the year and the beginning of the darker. When the darkness descended the world became a more dangerous place, the cold began to bite, people became ill, the ground was too hard to sow, the paths too waterlogged to travel, firewood a precious commodity, food became scarce, and danger lurked around every corner.
The winter months brought with them brought a genuine sense of menace and people were scared.
During Samhain it was believed that the air became thinner and that the miasma, or fog, that separated the world of the living from that of the dead dissipated and that it became possible for the spirits to move freely between the two.
Families would hold ceremonies or rituals where the spirits of their long dead relatives would be invited to join them to be praised and honoured. Food would be laid out for them and toasts made in their memory.
But if the good spirits could move between the world of the living and the dead so could the evil, and it was these evil spirits who were thought responsible for the many accidents and deaths that occurred at the dark time of the year and young men would paint their faces and dress up as ghosts and ghouls in attempt to ward off and frighten away these evil spirits.
In the evening of the last day of what we know now as October a festival was held.
The people of the village would gather and two large bonfires were lit a little way apart.
The need to store food for the winter months meant that much of the livestock would have to be slaughtered and the people with their animals would be led between the two fires by priests after which the animals would have their throats slit and the butchers would warm their hands in the blood. The flesh would then be torn from the carcases and preserved before the bones were cast into the fire as part of the purification ceremony. Once this ritual had been completed wild dancing would spontaneously break out and a celebration would begin that only ended with exhaustion or the coming of daylight.
Prayers would then be held for the good fortune of the village and the well-being of each individual during this most fearful of times.
Halloween celebrated in the 18th century
Such is the origin of a time we now consider a festival for children, but like much of our present its history is glimpsed through the dim tunnel of a murky and often sinister past.