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Halloween originates with Samhain, lord of the dead

The Story

Ancient pagan Celts first performed Halloween-like rituals on the Nov. 1 feast of Samhain, lord of the dead. On that night Celtic priests or Druids believed Samhain assembled the souls of those who had died the past year. In Samhain's honour the Druids sacrificed a human, usually the village fool, crowned king for a day and paraded around town in a wicker cage. At nightfall they set the cage ablaze, roasting him as a sacrifice to the god of the dead. Romans outlawed the rite in 61 AD but the Druids persisted, burning black cats instead, believing they were servants of witches. It wasn't until 834 AD that Samhain became a Christian festival, incorporated into the calendar as All Saints' Day (also called All Hallows) by Pope Gregory III. In the new world, Gaelic immigrants held farmhouse gatherings on Oct. 31. Apples and nuts, plentiful at harvest, became yearly traditions at the gatherings. Revellers ducked for apples and carved pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns. The lusty immigrants of the 1800s enjoyed practical jokes, turning All Hallows' Eve into a night of trickery. In the morning, farmers awoke to a wagon on the roof, the front door hanging from a sycamore or a tipped outhouse. In 1961, CBC Radio's Mike Roberts tells the tales of how Halloween traditions began.

Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: Oct. 31, 1961
Host: Maria Barrett, Bill McNeil
Reporter: Mike Roberts
Duration: 7:20
Photo: Jake Krohn used under Flicker Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Did You know?

• Samhain, a Celtic word meaning "summer's end," was an ancient pagan festival worshiping the god of the dead or the dying sun. The festival marked the end of harvest and beginning of winter. To the Druids, dying crops were synonymous with the return of the dead to earth.

• Samhain is pronounced "sow-in" (like cow).

• Jack-o'-lanterns were first used in Britain on Punkie Night, the last Thursday in October. Children paraded the streets with punkies or lanterns, scooped out mangels (large beets) lit from within by a candle. In medieval times, women used punkies to guide men home from nights drinking at the pub.

• In Scotland, turnips were used for punkies. The tradition of using pumpkins for jack-o'-lanterns originated in North America.

• The term jack-o'-lantern most probably derives from the idea of the pumpkin as a night watchman. An Irish folktale says a man named Jack, who was too stingy to go to heaven and banned from hell for playing practical jokes on the devil, walks the earth with a lantern until Judgment Day.




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