The name itself is a derivative of “All Hallows Eve,” the night before the Catholic Church honors its saints on “All Hollows Day” or “All Saints Day.”Halloween is one of the world’s oldest holidays, with origins stemming from centuries of religious observance and superstition.
But in fifth century B.C., Celtic Ireland, Oct. 31 was the official end of the summer season. The holiday was dubbed “Samhain” (pronounced sow-en) and marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
Legend tells that the Celts believed the disembodied spirits of those who had died during the previous year came back searching for living bodies to possess for the next 12 months. Samhain, they thought, was the only day of the year when all laws of time and space were suspended, giving the spirit world an opening to mingle with the living. For the deceased, it was hope for an afterlife.
On Oct. 31, as the story goes, the Celts extinguished the fires in their homes, making them cold and undesirable for wandering spirits. Dressed in ghoulish costumes, the Celts paraded loudly and destructively through their villages to frighten away ghosts looking for bodies to possess. Another accounting of Samhain claims that the Celts would burn a villager at the stake, who was considered already possessed, as a warning to the spirits.
The Romans adopted the Celtic Samhain celebration in the first century A.D. Their observance, however, was a day to honor Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona was represented by the apple, which could explain the tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.
The Celts’ noisy, costumed parade through the neighborhood could be credited as a primitive form of trick-or-treating. However, that honor actually belongs to ninth-century Europeans and their practice of “souling.”
On Nov. 2, All Soul’s Day, early Christians walked from village to village begging for “soul cakes” – a square piece of bread with currants. Villagers believed the more soul cakes the beggars received, the more prayers would be said on behalf of the donors’ dead relatives. At the time, common belief was that the dead remained in limbo after death, and prayers, even from strangers, expedited the soul’s passage to heaven.
Greek mythology also finds references to Samhain, which is probably where Halloween’s association with witches came from.
Underworld goddesses Hecate and Medusa were believed to wander the perceived empty space between life and death, seeking souls of the dead. Considered serpent goddesses, dark legends surrounding Hecate and Medusa spawned myths of vampires, who fed off the living with snake-like fangs. Today, Hecate is often thought to be the goddess of witches.
Over time, as belief in spirit possession began to wane, the custom of donning costumes and going door-to-door begging for treats became more ceremonial and playful. Irish immigrants, fleeing their country’s potato famine in the 1840s, brought the ritual to America and introduced the tradition of Halloween pranks. Popular antics at the time were tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates.
But before landing on American soil, Irish children lit carved potatoes or turnips for their Halloween gatherings. The ritual was considered a nod to Jack, an infamous Irish villain thought to be so wicked that neither God nor the Devil wanted him. Jack, it seems, wandered the world endlessly, looking for a place to rest. His only guidance and warmth was a glittering candle in a rotten turnip.
Immigrants found turnips weren’t as plentiful in their new homeland, however, and found the American pumpkin to be a far better replacement. Today, the carved pumpkin is probably the most universal icon of Halloween.
While the holiday may have evolved to be far from a religious experience or cultural superstition, there still lingers the question: Do long-dead spirits still wander among us?
• At Multnomah Falls, the spirit of an Indian maiden is said to still roam. Legend says the maiden jumped to her death from the 542-foot upper falls after an old medicine man said her sacrifice was the only way to stop a deadly epidemic among her tribe. Following her death, it’s said, the epidemic stopped, but visitors to the falls occasionally report feeling an unearthly presence.
• Another local reputed haunted hotspot is Pittock Mansion, where Portland pioneers, Henry and Georgiana Pittock, are said to happily roam the rooms of the 1914 mansion they so loved.
• The McMennamin Brothers’ Bagdad Theater and Edgefield resort in Troutdale also are said to be loaded with spirits of those who lived and worked in the buildings at one time. At Edgefield, guests have reported a large dog shoving his wet nose in their face while they slept or called the front desk saying they’ve heard children crying.
• And at Oaks Amusement Park, a lone child, dressed in 1970s attire, has been seen on the grounds numerous times for more than 20 years.
So if the whole Halloween thing seems rather creepy, consider this prayer, recorded in the Cornish and West Country Litany in 1926, as protection against the supernatural: “From goulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!”