All Hallows’ Eve

31 October - Hallowe’en is celebrated by now all across the world on the traditional date of Samhain or All Hallows’ Eve.

“But while this may be regarded as fairly certain for what we may call the aborigines throughout a large part of the continent, it appears not to have been true of the Celtic peoples who inhabited the Land’s End of Europe, the islands and promontories that stretch out into the Atlantic Ocean on the North-West. The principal fire-festivals of the Celts, which have survived, though in a restricted area and with diminished pomp, to modern times and even to our own day, were seemingly timed without any reference to the position of the sun in the heaven. They were two in number, and fell at an interval of six months, one being celebrated on the eve of May Day and the other on Allhallow Even or Hallowe’en, as it is now commonly called, that is, on the thirty-first of October, the day preceding All Saints’ or Allhallows’ Day ... Yet while a glamour of mystery and awe has always clung to Hallowe’en in the minds of the Celtic peasantry, the popular celebration of the festival has been, at least in modern times, by no means of a prevailing gloomy cast; on the contrary it has been attended by picturesque features and merry pastimes, which rendered it the gayest night of all the year.“ (Sir James Frazer “The Golden Bough”)

An imagination of Jack O’Lantern wandering through the night on All Hallow’s Eve by the Slovakian artist Rado Javor* 

 A long time ago, when bronze working was a state-of-the-art skill, smiths were regarded as some kind of magicians, those who were able to craft two different metals from the womb of the earth into something new, more than the sum of its parts and cast wonderful tools and weapons from it. Smithies remained enchanted places, conveniently close to the magic crossroads, often with a gateway to the Otherworld and the idea of the uncanny smith remained in the collective consciousness of the people. And thus, it was a smith called Jack Oldfield, once upon a time in Ireland, who struck a deal with the devil. When old Nick came to snatch Jack’s soul, he asked the adversary to buy him a last drink. The fiend agreed and since he had no loose cash on him, he changed into sixpence and Jack grabbed the coin from the counter, put it into his pocket together with a silver cross. Thus, the dickens couldn’t change back and Jack made another deal. He’d free the archfiend if he wouldn’t come back to claim his soul for another ten years. The Lord of the Flies agreed and when he returned at the agreed time, Jack asked him for an apple as last meal and up a tree went Belzeboub to get one for the smith while Jack quickly carved a cross into the bark of the tree and the archfiend was snookered again. Jack agreed to let him go if his soul would be safe from hell for all eternity. And then, one fine day, Jack’s number came up. The gatekeepers in heaven sent the old sleeveen packing post-haste and then Jack stood at the gates of hell and he couldn’t go in there either, since he had his deal and Jack was condemned to wander the world forever and a day. Old Nick, however, took pity and gave him a glowing coal from the fires of hell to provide at least a bit of light and warmth for the lost soul on his way and Jack put it in a turnip he had with him as provisions for the journey. And so he became known as Jack of the Lantern, Jack O’Lantern and his damned soul wanders through the night on All Hallow’s Eve.

A traditional Irish Jack-o'-Lantern in the Museum of Country LifeIreland

Whether Jack had the turnip with him to distil poitín is not passed down to posterity, however, the various light and fire festivals celebrated all across Northern and Central Europe on or around October 31st used turnips and beets to carve spooky lanterns from and when thousands came sailing across the western ocean to the New World, they used the vegetable available in abundance there to celebrate the custom: pumpkins. It was the Irish Renaissance that began in the 1830s, however, that claimed an unbroken tradition from pre-Christian times and old Celtic rituals to modern customs. And while the Protestant regions celebrated the Reformation on All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowe’en, Catholic areas like Ireland or southern Germany maintained rituals in relation to all the death having a pass in that certain night before the solemnity of Hallowmas was celebrated on the next day. That the restless dead are going about during that night is very probably not an old Celtic belief of Samhain, the day when the Celtic year ended, when the harvest was gathered, livestock was brought back from the summer pastures and winter began. This world and the other worlds overlapped on Samhain though and the gateways were open for the fairies and other denizens of the Annwn, the underworld who loved to cross over. The restless death were just a later, Christian addition to the cross-border commuters of that special night.

Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870): “Snap-Apple Night“ (1833) shows people feasting and playing divination games on Halloween in Ireland

Riabagoaschtern, Kipkapköögels, the Dickwurzmann and the Rummelnacht, shindig night, the lanterns lit on Martinmas sometimes still made from turnips, the tricking and treating and disguising and all those other customs with the seal of approval of alleged historical hindsight back to times immemorial are usually seldom older than the Early Modern Age and might or might not be an echo of ancient customs and most become disposed, step by step, by the reimport of Hellowe’en from the United States. And along with more serious religious practices, the fun part prevails, like it probably was in the days of yore, be that the 16th century or the Bronze Age.

* Found on - more of Rado’s art can be wondered and marvelled at on:

And more about on Hallowe’en on: