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Halloween, Samhain and Jack o' Lantern



The Christian celebration of Halloween (holy evening), like its predecessor, the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, is that liminal time of year when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead become thin. For our ancestors, that's when ghosts and spirits needed to be propitiated with offerings of crops, milk and wine. Today, these ancient customs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales (bastions of Celtic heritage) are mirrored by such modern counterparts as Mexico's Dia de los Muertos, (Day of the Dead), when people leave food and drink at the graves of family members.

In pre-Christian Britain and Ireland, Samhain (pronounced SAH-win), literally "summer's end," marked the beginning of the winter season and — according to some historians — the start of the new year. Crops were brought in, cattle brought down from the hills, livestock slaughtered (as summer grass died), bonfires lit and precursors of modern trick-or-treaters went from house to house in costume demanding gifts in return for reciting poetry. Sound familiar?

The feast of All Hallows, or All Saints, was an attempt by the early church to lessen the importance of pagan festivals by substituting them with Christian holy days, like pegging Christmas to the time of the Roman solstice festival of Saturnalia. In the case of Samhain, in 835 AD, Pope Gregory IV designated Nov. 1 — the traditional date of Samhain — as All Saints Day.

And just as the Yule log reminds us of the pagan roots of Christmas, our carved candlelit pumpkin, the Jack o' Lantern, is born of an earlier tradition. The story goes that Jack was a ne'er-do-well hard drinker, whose misdeeds precluded happiness in the afterlife. Staggering home after a boozy night, Jack was ambushed by Old Nick himself. "Follow me to purgatory," he ordered. Jack complained that he would need a stick "from yonder sycamore" if he was to walk all the way to hell. Grudgingly, the Devil climbed the tree to break off a branch, at which Jack trapped him by quickly carving a cross in the bark. So a deal was struck: Jack would free him if Satan promised to not claim his soul. When Jack died, the Devil kept his word but instead tossed him a blazing lump of coal straight from the fires of hell. It being a cold night, Jack put the coal in a scooped-out turnip for warmth and light. And today, Jack and his lantern still roam between heaven and hell seeking a place to rest.

Somehow this old Irish story traveled to East Anglia, in England, where Jack o' Lantern became another name for Will o' the Wisp, the peasant name for ignis fatuus — foolish fire — the odd phenomenon of light appearing at night above marshy ground. It's not well understood but is probably caused by the spontaneous ignition of methane and phosphene from rotting vegetation. Ignis fatuus is rarely seen today, with the disappearance of both wetlands and the dark of night — have any readers seen it?

Immigrants from the Old World brought Halloween over to the U.S., where it caught on like wildfire, despite objections from the Puritans. As you light your pumpkin candle or give those pesky kids a handful of tooth-destroying candies, know that you're maintaining a custom whose origins come from long ago and far away. Happy Samhain!

Barry Evans ([email protected]) knows in his Celtic bones that the thin time is almost upon us.

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