Halloween has spread around the globe to places as diverse as Russia, China, and Japan, but its association with death and the supernatural and its inevitable commercialization has made it one of our most misunderstood holidays.
In 1762, British military engineer Charles Vallancey was sent to Ireland on a surveying mission. Vallancey, however, was no ordinary engineer: he was extraordinarily well-read in history and linguistics, corresponded with many of the leading proponents of the then-fashionable Orientalism and fancied himself a scholar and writer. He soon developed an obsession with the lore and language of Ireland’s ancient Celts, and he wrote hundreds of pages of collected fact, observation and speculation on the green isle’s early inhabitants.
There was just one problem: much of what Vallancey recorded was wrong.
By 1786, when Vallancey published the third volume of his opus Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, it was already well established that the name ‘Samhain’ (pronounced ‘sow-in’) referred to the three day Celtic New Year celebration that began when the sun went down on 31 October. Other linguists had recorded the translation of ‘summer’s end’ for Samhain, but Vallancey believed this was a ‘false derivation’, and went on to state that Samhain was actually a Celtic deity who was also known as ‘balsab… for Bal is lord, and Sab death’.
It didn’t seem to matter much that the name ‘Balsab’ appears nowhere else in Celtic lore, or even that Vallancey’s work was dismissed during his lifetime (the Orientalist scholar Sir William Jones said of Vallancey, ‘Do you wish to laugh? Skim the book over. Do you wish to sleep? Read it regularly’). Somehow Vallancey’s work found its way onto library shelves all over Britain, and formed a strange alternate history of Samhain (and its descendant Halloween) that ran alongside the traditional Celtic folklore texts and Irish dictionaries that defined the word correctly. Nearly two centuries after Vallancey first journeyed to Ireland, books like Halloween Through Twenty Centuries (1950) were still referring to ‘Samhain, Lord of the Dead’. By the early 1990s, Christian groups throughout America were urging parents to keep their children from celebrating a holiday during which ‘human beings were burned as an offering in order to appease and cajole Samhain, the lord of Death’.
How is it possible that religious and community leaders would use the writings of a romantic who was denounced in 1818 as having written ‘more nonsense than any man of his time’ in order to denounce a major celebration? How could the history of what has become, in America at least, the second most popular holiday of the year be so little known?
Halloween is undoubtedly the most misunderstood of festivals. Virtually every English-speaker in the world can instantly tell you where the name ‘Christmas’ comes from – they could probably also provide an anecdote about St Patrick and his Day, and of course those celebrations with simple declarative titles, like New Year’s or Father’s Day, require no great linguistic skills – but amazingly few understand so much as the origin of the name ‘Halloween’. The word itself almost has a strange, pagan feel – which is ironic, since the name derives from ‘All Hallows’ Eve’. Prior to about AD 1500, the noun ‘hallow’ (derived from the Old English hálga, meaning ‘holy’) commonly referred to a holy personage or, specifically, a saint. All Saints’ Day was the original name for the Catholic celebration held on 1 November, but – long after ‘hallow’ had lost its meaning as a noun – the eve of that day would become known as Halloween.
Halloween owes part of its legacy of confusion and obfuscation to those same Celts who provided the basis for the celebration with their Samhain. Surprisingly little is known of them since they kept no written records. Our knowledge of Ireland’s Celts is based largely on orally transmitted lore (much of which was recorded by Christian monks of the first millennium) and scattered archaeological evidence. It’s no wonder that writers like Vallancey – the ones with a more exotic take on history – dreamt of a race of savages who offered up human sacrifices to demonic gods and spent the autumn warding off evil spirits by constructing huge, roaring bonfires. By the mid-twentieth century, Halloween historians had added another mistake to their understanding of the day, stating that it was based in part on a Roman festival called Pomona, when in fact there was no such celebration. In the 1960s, a veritable cult of urban legends built up around Halloween – especially the notorious ‘razor blade in the apple’ myth, which suggested that innocent young children were at risk during the beloved ritual of trick or treat – although there were no recorded instances of real cases behind these modern myths. Over the next few decades, there were reports of anonymous psychos poisoning candy, costumed killers stalking college dorms on Halloween night and Satanic cults offering up sacrifices of black cats, and warnings of gangs initiating new members by committing murders on 31 October. It sometimes seems as though the prank-playing and mischievousness that have been a key factor in Halloween celebrations for hundreds of years have crossed over and played tricks on its history.