Halloween and the Harvest

Trick or treat or . . . harvest? Though Halloween today revolves around collecting candy and dressing up in costumes, the spooky holiday has agrarian roots. Halloween is believed to have stemmed from Samhain (pronounced sow-win), a traditional Gaelic festival celebrating the end of the fall harvest.

Beginning on October 31st and extending into November 1st, Samhain marked the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter. Feasts were held to celebrate a successful harvest. Though many aspects of Samhain were celebratory, there were some more sinister connotations of the holiday as well, giving Halloween its trademark horror undertones. [1]

Celts believed that on the night of October 31st, the boundary between the living world and the supernatural realm was at its thinnest. The dead could return as ghosts, carrying with them malice and ill-intent. The ghosts were thought to have intentions of damaging crops and wreaking havoc. To prevent any potential devilish trouble from occurring, animal bones from the annual slaughter and parts of already harvested crops were burnt in bonfires as a sacrifice to the Celtic deities. To ward off ghosts and evil spirits, people dressed up as demons and spirits themselves. This was both to disguise themselves from the evil spirits, and to scare off the spirits with their ghoulish costumes. [2]

Protecting crops from evil spirits is no longer the motivator for people dressing up on Halloween, but the tradition of wearing costumes likely stems from this ancient practice. If you dress up this year, feel proud that you may be playing a hand in protecting the crops from ghosts and ghouls! Bonfires are also still a common tradition on Halloween, though significantly fewer bones and crops are sacrificed today. The name “bonfire” is derived from “bone fire” though, so the sacrificial legacy of Samhain bonfires still exists, if only in etymology. [3]

Agriculture is a powerful force in the human story and has shaped many of our cultural practices, even when its influence is no longer obvious. Halloween is once such instance. Though Halloween is no longer treated as a celebration of harvest, the ghost of agriculture still lurks in its shadow.


References:

[1] History.com Editors. (2009, November 18). Halloween 2020. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween

[2] Mayhair, B. (2019, October 29). History of Halloween: When and How Did This Tradition Start? Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://dakotastudent.com/13115/news/history-of-halloween-when-and-how-did-this-tradition-start/

[3] The Halloween Bonfire. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2020, from http://www.hauntedbay.com/history/bonfire.shtml

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