For thousands of years, my Celtic ancestors have marked the turnover between the 'light' and 'dark' halves of the year, a night when ghosts and other supernatural beings were free to roam among humans.
This lack of a barrier between the world of supernatural and the mundane continues through November 1st (sometimes called All Soul's Day). This is the origin of the phrase 'a year and a day' that turns up in lots of Celtic or Celtic-influenced folklore: it was one year, plus All Soul's Day.
Halloween has historically been both a harvest festival and an attempt to appease any supernatural creatures that might be wandering about. A number of traditions developed around these goals:
- Children went house-to-house, soliciting fuel contributions for a large bonfire. Often, the bones of animals that had been slaughtered to provide food for the winter were placed in the fire. Later, the ashes were scattered;
- Food was left out on doorsteps to appease any restless spirits or supernatural creatures that might be out and about;
- Dressing up in costumes, including cross-dressing or dressing up as animals or spirits, symbolised the breakdown of boundaries. Jack-o-lanterns were carved from vegetables to imitate the faces of supernatural creatures.
- Ritual redefinition of property boundaries and public paths, claiming the space for humans.
Over time, these evolved into the recognisable modern Halloween traditions that have been spread through the world by mass immigration and, more recently, mass media.