Halloween in Salem is a grand time for all ages, and filled with many cultural traditions entwined with the holiday. However, did you ever wonder where those traditions came from?
Halloween comes from the Old English word hallow meaning saint. Originally, the holiday was called All Hallows Eve, and then shortened to Hallowe’en and finally the contemporary version of the word we use today.
In ancient Celtic traditions the holiday Samhain was celebrated. Samhain (pronounced Sow-when) was a time when it was believed that the line between the world of the living and the world of the dying was thin. The word simply meant Summer’s End. Crops in the fields had been harvested, and the hunt was about to begin. Leaves were falling from trees, animals were starting to hide, the ground got cold and hard. People had the illusion the earth was dying too. It was a time to honor the true end of summer.
It was a time to honor the earth’s cycle in to winter, the ancestors of one’s family, and friends who had died throughout the year. Many villages and clans honored their loved ones with feasts, teas and special suppers. Burial places were cleaned and flowers, food and drink were left for the dead. It was both solemn and celebratory of the legacies they left behind. Samhain and feasts to the ancestors are still celebrated by many Wiccan and Earth-centered spiritual people in Salem meaning and around the world today.
Many of our contemporary Halloween traditions have come directly from the celebration of Samhain. For example, young people traditionally went door to door to collect food and wood to build fires to honor the dead. Gifts were left in the fields for the gods and goddesses of the year in thanks for the harvest. These children would dress up so the spirits of the night would not know them. In some places in Europe today, there is a tradition of going from home to home on All Soul’s Day for soul cakes, a type of currant bun. In return, the recipient prays for the household’s family. These traditions are thought to have been the beginnings of trick or treating.
Dressing up at this sacred time of year became a way of inviting the spirits to help you reach your dreams. Ghosts, skeletons, and goblin type characters were ways of dressing to confuse the evil spirits. Dressing like death took away the fear of it. It became a way to honor death as part of the process of life.
Embers and coals from the sacred village fires would be taken to homes to light and bless the household’s hearth fires for the winter. To carry these hot coals – squashes, turnips, pumpkins and gourds were carved out with funny faces and glowing chunks of hot coals were placed inside for safe carrying home. The lit faces scared others in the forests and it was seen as a way to protect ones self in the dark of the night. This is thought to have been the early renditions of the lighting of pumpkins.
In nature religious traditions like Wicca, people gather together to honor those who have died in many ways even in Salem. Special meals sometimes called dumb suppers to honor the memories of those who have passed are held. These silent meals are opportunities to remember our connections to our ancestors. Worship circles are held for congregations to come together, honoring not just ancestors, but world leaders and community members who have passed on. It is a time also to look at habits and life patterns we need to let go of in our lives that do not work for us. Samhain is a deeply reflective holiday filled with reverence for the changing earth our connections while on it.
There are many congregation and groups who welcome visitors to their celebrations of the holy day of Samhain amidst the secular celebrations of Halloween on October 31. Listings for special events can be found at HauntedHappenings.org.
Photo © Kishgraphics • Written by Rev. J. Hildebrand