Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve,” a Christian descendant of the Celtic feast day Samhain (pronounced, in that mysterious way of Gaelic, “SOW-in”). Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “dark half” of the Celtic calendar.
The pagan Celtic year was divided into quarters and these Bronze Age people apparently thought of their spiritual dimension as a circle in a square, with the world of the living being the square and the spirit world the circle around it. At the corners of the square the distance between the realms of the living and the dead were “thinnest.”
Each of these corners was exactly half way between a solstice and an equinox. The winter and summer solstices are, respectively the shortest and longest days of the year, something a Bronze Age person could observe and measure directly. Likewise the equinoxes are 24-hour periods during which day and night are of equal length, also something that can be measured by people with clocks.
Bronze Age farmers in northern Europe paid close attention to this solar cycle and the attendant warmth that defined their growing season. Most of the Bronze age (after 2700 BCE) was marked by a climate warmer than the present day—grapes were grown in the British Isles and Scandinavia—making farming relatively easy and causing the population to rise to higher densities than during the Stone Age. The climate deteriorated after 850 BCE and declined further after 650 BCE.
Feast days included rituals to propitiate gods that ostensibly had some say over how the harvest season would go. Earlier Europeans noticed that the seasonal warmth lagged the solar cycle significantly. Even most modern people are aware that although the summer solstice is on June 21, the warmest days of the summer do not arrive until August. It is perhaps this fact that caused the pagan Celts to place their feast days exactly half way between the solstices and equinoxes. And because these days represents crests, troughs and turning points in the seasons they decided that the spirits must be closer and occasionally even in our realm.
Lughnasa, which was (and, less essentially, is) celebrated during the first few days of August, marks the start of the harvest season, and Samhain, bridging the last days of October and first few days of November, marks the end. Of course, the present (more or less Gregorian) calendar did not assume its present form until sometime in the Middle Ages. The Romans after the first century BCE used a Julian calendar with 12 months. This was adopted by the Celts (although the names of the months were changed), but before that time, the feast days had not likely been thought of as being associated with months per se. Rather, they were simply part of the growing season.
Beltane, the beginning of the “light half” of the year, has come down to us as “May Day.” It is associated with the yearly inception of fertility upon the land and among the people. The May pole is fertility rite. Secular humanists copied the time-honored Christian tradition of co-opting pagan holidays for their own purposes when they established “labor day” on May Day through out Europe (although the tradition surprisingly began in Australia in 1856) by 1886.
A workers’ riot at Haymarket in Chicago in 1886 caused the United States to move its Labor Day to the first weekend in September, which, while it is the beginning of the school year in the northern United States, was several weeks into the school year when the South was predominantly agrarian, because the harvest season comes earlier and ends earlier there. Kids could therefore return to school in August, as they were no longer needed on the farm to bring in the crops.
Perhaps the most unsung Celtic feast day is Imbolc, which arrives in early February, the proverbial “dead” of winter. The end of the harvest at Samhain is a fond memory and the beginning of the growing season at Beltane is a light at the end of a dark tunnel. The shortest day of the year, December 21, the winter solstice, is pretty darned short in the British Isles and Scandinavia. So by early February the days have been getting longer for almost six weeks, but it is still pretty dark and cold.
Hence the tradition of “Groundhog Day.” The earliest reference in the United States is from 1841 in Pennsylvania where it is associated with Candlemas (which celebrates an event in the infancy of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Luke). Marmota monax, is a New World animal, so if the North American tradition of evaluating the behavior of a small, groggy furred animal emerging from a burrow has any Old World roots, it would have to be a different mammal. A badger? A stoat? In any case, if the beast sees his shadow, then we’ll have six more weeks of winter. In other words, Beltane won’t come early.
On Halloween people dress in costume, pretending to be “not themselves” with the more traditional costumes having supernatural overtones as per the Celtic idea of the closeness of the spirit realm on this day. But the vestiges of the harvest holiday survive in odd artifacts like carved pumpkins, candy corn and candied apples.