Hallowe’en: Celtic New Year

hallowe'en bucket of treats

Little pumpkin all set to trick or treat

Ghouls and ghosties are the order of the night for Hallowe’en. Trick or treating, visiting neighbours – to leave a dare or receive a treasure – has become not just an American ritual, but one which has caught on in the Western World.

How many of our children know the origins of the celebration which fills their imaginations with scary images until they shake with glee or cry for consolation?

2000 years ago the Celtic year began at Samhain. And as the Celts calculated in moons, their ‘new year’ night was celebrated during the moon of 31 October – 1 November: what is now known worldwide as Hallowe’en. For all Celtic peoples – contemporary with the height of Roman civilization – Samhain was a time of deliberate misrule and contrariness, rather like the Roman Saturnalia which was celebrated at winter solstice, or if calculated in the Julian calendar, beginning December 17 and lasting for a period of six days.

pumpkins ready for carving

Pumpkins ready for carving into Hallowe'en lanterns

Saturnalia no longer has many followers, unless you count Scots Hogmanay (New Year, December 31st), when celebrations echo a nighttime element of misrule, rôle reversal, with servant placed in magisterial position and the master serving him – or in boarding schools, the reversal of master-pupil for a brief moment of glory.

Saturnalia did not otherwise survive 2000 years of change.

Hallowe’en, on the other hand, seems not only to have survived, but blossomed: its increasing popularity attributed perhaps to its ability to touch on the element of fire – candles flickering in lanterns – the dark, calculation by the moon, the unknown.

Celtic names                   Modern months                  Meaning

Samonios                                       October/November        Seed-fall
Dumannios                            November/December    Darkest depths
Riuros                                          December/January           Cold-time
Anagantios                              January/February        Stay-home time
Ogronios                                    February/March                  Ice time
Cutios                                          March/April                         Windy time
Giamonios                                 April/May                           Shoots-show
Simivisonios                                May/June                            Bright time

Equos                                             June/July                           Horse-time

Elembiuos                                      July/August                      Claim-time
Edrinios                           August/September      Arbitration-time
Cantlos                                         September/October             Song-time

In the earliest known Celtic calendar, the Coligny Calendar of 13 moons (months), now in the Palais des Arts in Lyon, Samhain was the fire-Festival of the Dead. It was a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld was thought to be so thin that the dead could return to warm themselves at the hearths of the living, and some of the living – especially poets, artists, clairvoyants and shaman-healers – were able to enter the Otherworld through the doorways of the sidhe, or fairyfolk, such as the stone-lined entrance to the Celtic Hill of Tara in Ireland.

2000-year old Coligny calendrical calculations are quite complex and sophisticated, using a combination of moon and sun calculations which are obviously significant to the belief that the cycle of the moon ruled (and rules) people’s lives. The calendar dates from circa 1st century BC, and is made up of bronze fragments, once a single huge plate, inscribed with Latin characters, but written in the Gaulish language. It begins each month with the full moon, and covers a 30-year period of five cycles of 62 lunar months, with one of 61. It divides each month into fortnights (two-week periods) rather than single weeks, with individual days designated – from observation – as MAT (good) or ANM (not good). Each year is divided into thirteen (lunar) months.

The Christian Gregorian calendar never fully succeeded in spreading a veneer over its Celtic predecessor. It managed, however, to change the ancient festival of New Year – Samhain– from night to day, making the day of November 1st a celebration for All Saints, instead of the eerie ‘pagan’ concept of a nighttime fire-festival by moonlight the previous night. That was considered too ‘devilish’, rural or ‘ignorant’ to continue in an enlightened Christian world. But celebrate the country people continued to do.

Hallowe’en simply means the evening (night or moon-time) before All Hallows. So the older pre-Christian fire festival succeeded in perpetuating its Samhain roots, with parades and mocking the Dead – or even the Undead – allowing the Underworld to merge with the ‘real’ world, cavorting with spirits through the thinnest of veils. By perpetuating Samhain as Hallowe’en, the populace voted with its feet: adopting the Christian calendar name and applying it to a pre-Christian fire festival which would not go away.

This time of year we loosen Saturn’s bonds.
The ancient God awakens from His sleep,
and rules the Earth as in the Golden Age.

trick or treat

Trick or treat

Saturn’s influence, while associated with midwinter solstice, is also felt in the giving of gifts, or, what has become the fun of Hallowe’en: trick-or-treating. The Saturnalia was not just another fire festival to celebrate a time of misrule or night lording it over day, but for giving thanks for the bounty of harvest; and knowledge, said to have been brought to Earth by Saturn the God who showed Man how to store and preserve seed from a bountiful crop until sown again in spring furrows. While the giving of gifts perpetuates in most festivals of the Christian calendar (feasting after Lenten fast, Christmas Day giving and gift-unwrapping) the Celts were also masters of the soil, adept at tilling the Earth to encourage her to provide for next year. So the ‘treats’ of Hallowe’en are also rooted in that pre-Christian tradition of gift-giving and appreciation.

Piñata were originally a Chinese paper festival toy decorated with colored paper

Star-shaped piñata for Lent from original Chinese paper-decorated designs

Many countries in the Romance language tradition have Christian festivals which focus on giving gifts to children: Spain parades the Virgin through the streets on Assumption Day, her handmaidens distributing armloads of candies and sweetmeats to child onlookers; Mexico and South America have borrowed the Chinese habit of ‘spilling’ bounty into the hands of children at Lent (‘Carnival’) through the medium of the Piñata, originally a star-shaped breakable ceramic pot decorated with gaudy paper and stars, now invariably found in donkey shape at children’s parties.

Piñata in supermarkets

Piñata now decorate supermarket shelves at any time, not just at Lent

In the last dark days of October, mixing rituals from these ancient traditions may have been inconceivable a generation ago, but now supermarkets in Britain and the U.S. are overflowing, not only with the paraphernalia of Hallowe’en: the designer Miss Ghoul, eye-popping skeletal Batmen, or crypt-engulfing plastic green mould; but also with bright-coloured papier-maché piñatas whose glazed looks belie their position as Hallowe’en contenders. Their perky little donkey faces jostle for space with vampire teeth, while their frilly donkey legs adorn shelves earmarked for early Christmas shoppers, Harvest Thanksgiving and, of course, witches’ broomsticks and eerie black peaked hats. In their paper eyes lies the invitation to be smashed to pieces by excited children, already hyped up by the hyperbole of seasonal advertising. Their multicolour shredded paper coats attempt to rival the bright orange glow of Hallowe’en pumpkins and masks with a silly grin and the obligatory safety label sticking in their rear proclaiming their country of origin: China.

Hallowe’en may have survived its 2000-year transition, but it is doubtful whether any Celtic wraith floating in through the veil would recognize the 21st century version.

Explore posts in the same categories: calendar, Celtic ritual, culture, pre-Christian, prehistory, rites, ritual, seasons

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6 Comments on “Hallowe’en: Celtic New Year”

  1. […] at the Reformation pre-Christian festivals, such as clavie-burning and fire festivals at Beltane, Hallowe’en and harvest too, were frowned on. On the other hand, local tradition was strong: it was commonplace […]

  2. […] of early farmers through bronze age, iron age and early-historic times, until the arrival of the Celtic Colginy Calendar and its Roman counterpart, the Julian calendar, both originally, like all early societies, based on […]

  3. […] E’en – as Hallowe’en – was an ancient calendar fire festival celebrated, like all pre-Christian revelry, at night. […]

  4. siderealview Says:

    Reblogged this on Youngblood Blog and commented:

    Hinge of the Season looming… the essence behind Celtic New Year, our Hallowe’en

  5. I knew some of the origins, but I didn’t know Carnival was loosely tied to Halloween.

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