Halloween, or more accurately, All Hallows’ Eve, is best known today as a secular festival celebrated particularly in the English-speaking world, that falls on 31st October annually. Due to the secular rites which have now become associated with Halloween, it is a favourite of children who take pleasure in dressing up, wearing masks and trick or treating, but it is universally recognised as an important aspect of our calendar. Traditionally – or at least, in tradition as its viewed from Christendom – All Hallows’ Eve was recognised as an important evening of the Christian calendar, marking the beginning of a 3-day period of religious rites and rituals known as Allhallowtide. Halloween is followed by All Saints’ Day, which in turn is followed by All Souls’ Day when Christians honour the passing of “all faithful Christians who have since departed this world”.
In Europe, however, Halloween finds its roots in folklore that long predates the imposition of Christianity. The Pagan festival known as Winternights (Dísablót) is what originally occurred on the night of the 31st October, and the traditions and associated mythology is remarkably similar to the Christianised version we now call Halloween.
In the Pagan calendar, Winternights marks the last harvest and the setting down of outdoor tools for the winter months to come. The ancient Germanic, Norse and even Celtic* peoples of Europe observed this festival as the end of outdoor work for the year and a greater focus inward, both physically in terms of work and metaphysically in the sense that this marked the beginning of a time of reflection. At this time, hindsight takes priority over foresight and families and communities would commemorate the achievements of the period just passed. One could reasonably assume this would involve practical topics such as farming and other outdoor work, with a view to improving in preparation for the next springtime, as well more general boasting and cathartic discussion as was customary in Germanic societies.
Winternights was, of course, more than simply a marker of the passing harvest. There was a deeply spiritual element to this festival too, as it was believed that this marked a period during which the realms of the dead transcend the material world, and on this night in particular families and communities are closer to their fallen kin. Thus, this was a festival to venerate, celebrate and commemorate one’s ancestors and fallen warriors in particular. This perhaps is what gave rise to the modern Halloween mythology surviving in popular culture today, which focuses a great deal on the presence of ghosts and other unworldly spirits and beings.
In Germanic societies, Winternights also marked the beginning of something known in folklore as The Wild Hunt, a phenomenon whereby the God Woden would lead a hunt in the material world. Accompanying Woden would be the Valkyries, along will the God’s comrades amongst the fallen warriors inhabiting his hall, Valhalla. There are many tales and myths regarding The Wild Hunt, which have most commonly appeared and survived in Scandinavia, Germany and England, but can also be found in the folklore of Ireland, Scotland, Northern France and the Channel Islands.
It was widely believed that The Wild Hunt would claim any soul who happened across its path, leading Pagans to be wary of seeing it in person. Furthermore, many of the sights and sounds we would now attribute to nature such as the howling winter winds, or the thick fog that often engulfs our land on winter mornings, were previously thought of as sensory manifestations of this hunt. Dogs heard barking in the night were also brought into the story – it was widely said that Woden hunted with two dogs, with one barking more loudly than the other. When the dogs required rest, Woden would substitute them with ravens or other birds of prey, which possibly led to the association of pervasive crowing of birds on winter evenings with all things eerie and ominous.
There is also some some debate as to who led the hunt. Some cultures believed that this was the sole domain of Woden, whilst others placed the Goddess Freya (Frigge) at the head of this event, or saw the two as interchangeable for the position. This is what led many to believe in Winternights as a festival specifically to venerate the Gods and Goddesses of the Vanir (Wén), given that Freya originates from this family. Whilst this debate could justify its own article, it is perhaps reasonable to agree that Freya could have led the hunt, and given the matriarchal nature of Germanic households – especially when celebrating kinship, as they did on Winternights – it is not beyond possibility.
The focus on The Wild Hunt in Pagan traditions may have led to the notion of mask-wearing on Halloween today. In some Christian traditions, it is also held that mortal souls are vulnerable to the powers of the dead on this night, and wearing a mask disguised one from these powers thus protecting the mortal soul. It is quite possible that, during the transition to Christianity, many common folk still believed in the mythology of The Wild Hunt, therefore incorporating this particular tradition into their newly imposed faith. This is made more likely given that it was common for rural people in particular to retain their Pagan traditions, despite the nobles and monarchs adopting the Christian faith.
Of course, one thing that has not necessarily continued into the Christian era is the great feast that would be held on Winternights. A feast was a prominent feature of any Pagan festival, particularly during the winter months, as this brought families and communities together. This was especially important on Winternights, given the emphasis of this festival on kinship both living and departed. It was common for Pagans to prepare places at the table and extra food as a gesture of veneration of their departed ancestors, or sacrifice the beast they were to eat in the name of their fallen kin. The feast was made even more prominent on Winternights as many farm animals were not expected to make it through the winter, and were therefore mercifully killed and smoked or made into sausages, so as not to waste good food.
Another feature of Winternights that is not found in the Christian or secular traditions of Halloween is the bonfire. European pagans would light outdoor fires at this time, possibly as a mark of commemoration for their departed kin. At this time, dead ancestors could return to the places they had lived, eaten and drank, and around the fire the community (tribe) could be as one in spirit. In England the lighting of bonfires is more closely associated with Guy Fawkes’ Night on 5th November, but there is no suggestion that this modern tradition is an amalgamation of the two – however, given the relative irrelevance of bonfires (not fireworks) to Catholic-Protestant animosity, it could be said that bonfires were perhaps a tradition of the same period that became absorbed by Christian/secular festivities. But alas, this is mere conjecture.
To briefly conclude, it is certain that the modern Christian and secular festivities associated with Halloween are at least in part derived from the pagan roots of Northern Europe. The materialistic aspects of these festivities, such as trick or treating and the increasingly promiscuous costumes, are not. Neither, it must be said, are they derived from any Christian celebrations of this period. But one can say with a degree of certainty that the concept of honouring the fallen and the wider notion of the departed spirits transcending the material and spiritual world were widely celebrated when our people were Pagan, and consequently that these ideas were continued and absorbed by the advent of Christianity in Europe.
*In Celtic cultures, there is a slightly different festival held on 31st October known as Samhain. Whilst this has many similarities with Winternights and the associated Germanic and Nordic traditions, there are many aspects that make Samhain unique and would require a separate article to do the subject justice.