Oct. 31, 2002 -- Don't worry about being hexed by a witch this Halloween. You're more likely to be zapped by a fairy stroke or ripped apart by a buggane.
Well, at least that's what the ancient Celts who observed the precursor to Halloween thought.
Halloween, as every young pumpkin-carver knows, is a corruption of All Hallow's Eve — the night before the Christian feast of All Saints' Day.
But long before the birth of Christianity, Celts were celebrating Samhain — the holiday marking the end of the harvest and the start of the Celtic new year.
"It was a holiday when the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural were considered to be transparent and thin. It anticipated the coming of winter," says Nick Rogers, a history professor at York University in Toronto and author of Halloween: From Pagan Rituals to Party Night.
Samhain (pronounced SOW-in in Irish Gaelic and SAHV-in in Scottish) was a "highly ambivalent time," says Edmund Kern, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
"It was a good time for prognostication, a good time for telling the future," he says. "But it was also a good time for the dead to settle a score."
When Evil Spirts Roam the Earth
And that's the problem when the boundaries between the two worlds break down. The ordinary rules of society break down, too — which can lead to some raucous behavior. But it also means that ghosts and other supernatural beings had an open passport to our world.
The dead liked to visit their earthly haunts on Samhain. "There was a belief that the spirits, that people who had lived in the community, those spirits could come back to see how things were going," says Frederick Suppe, a medieval and Celtic historian at Ball State University in Indiana.
Some people might find comfort in the prospect of visits from their deceased loved ones. But if a dead person had reason to carry a grudge against you, watch out.
And, of course, ghosts weren't the only otherworldly beings wandering around at night. "There are various kinds of evil spirits — some are just mean and nasty and horrible," says Suppe.
Among those you might encounter, should you be so unwise as to venture out on Samhain:
Pooka: The Irish believed in this mischievous creature, who was given to rather nasty games.
"If you hadn't collected your harvest [by Samhain], the pooka would urinate on it out in the field," says Suppe.
Fairy Folk: Fairies weren't likely to mess with mortals on Samhain — unless those hapless humans did something to annoy them.
"You might be wandering around and you might get in the way of these spirits. They might zap you with a fairy stroke," says Suppe. "This is where our expression 'to suffer a stroke' comes from."
Buggane: People on the Isle of Man believed in this charming creature, which could "literally tear people limb from limb," Suppe says.
Banshee: This female spirit wasn't necessarily malicious, but she knew who was going to die next, and would wail to welcome these doomed folks to the underworld.
Water Horse: It might look like a nice, friendly pony, but when a person climbed on its back, the malevolent equine would dash into the nearest lake, drowning the unfortunate rider.
Conspicuously lacking from this list: witches.
"The original Celtic holiday had nothing to do with witches," says Suppe. "In early Christianity there's no notice of witches. … It's only in the latter part of the Middle Ages that you start getting some beliefs in some human beings called witches or evildoers."
Of Bonfires and Giant Turnips
When St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century, he wasn't too keen on the pagan holiday. Eventually, the Church came up with the idea of fixing a feast day to revere all the Christian saints on Nov. 1 — and the eve of the feast coincided with Samhain.
"It might be reasonable to speculate that the feast of All Saints' was established to redirect pagan festivities," says Kern.
But some of the Samhain practices carried over to the celebration of All Hallows' Eve.
For instance, fire was very important in the celebration of Samhain.
"You use fire as a way of repelling the evil spirits," says Suppe. "This is where the jack-o'-lanterns and bonfires come from. We use pumpkins, but over in Wales they use giant turnips."
The ancient Celts didn't go trick-or-treating, but they did leave out appetizing morsels for the spirits.
"To placate these spirits, you give them offerings of hospitality," says Suppe. "If you harvest grain, you make something called a corn dolly. You leave the food as a symbol of hospitality."
Bobbing for apples also has some ancient roots. "In all Celtic folklore, an apple is an element of the other world," says Suppe.
So when young women in a community wanted to find out who they would marry, each of them would choose a distinctive apple. The apples were tossed in a barrel of water, and the young men would try to grab them with their teeth. Whoever's apple they bit into would (in theory) be their future bride.
Guisers and Mummers
The playful, prankster aspect of Halloween is also a long-standing tradition. In the ancient days, youths would jump over the remains of the Samhain bonfires, says Suppe.
Centuries later, in Scotland, bands of "guisers" — teenage boys and young men in odd costumes — would go door to door, threatening more respectable folks with mischief, he says.
"It's sort of a thing like toilet-papering today or putting shaving cream in mailboxes," says Suppe.
Kern, the Lawrence University professor, points to the similar practice of mumming, which allowed youths to dress up in costumes and indulge in pranks if they weren't somehow paid off.
"These mummers, usually male youths, threatened the more established citizens of the community with mischief. They'd dress up in outrageous costumes and demand payment."
And in conjunction with the observance of All Saints' Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls' Day on Nov. 2, "almost everyone would make sweet 'soul cakes,'" says Kern. "You'd distribute these to family members as well as poor neighbors in exchange for their prayers for the dead."
Coming to America
Halloween customs were brought to the United States and Canada by immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and soon took on a life of their own.
And the holiday eventually moved from being an excuse for adults and teenagers to let off steam to a more kid-friendly event. Trick-or-treating really only became popular after World War II, says Kern.
But in the 1970s, parents began to worry that little trick-or-treaters might be in danger.
"People are nasty, they're putting razors in apples and contaminating candy," says York University's Rogers.
He points out that the recent sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area and the anthrax attacks last fall made many communities think twice about holding Halloween events.
"There are all these scares out there," he says. "They catch the eye of the media and they become big and scary and in some ways they become urban legends. … The panic over an unsafe Halloween is often disproportionate to the danger."
And increasingly, Rogers says, people are affixing political agendas to Halloween.
"There are debates in some schools, should we get rid of Halloween and have an autumn festival? … There are some who say we shouldn't make it such a gruesome holiday. Last year, after 9/11, a lot of people were saying, 'Turn down the gore, let's not frighten the kids.'"
In addition, he says, "There are some people who are offended by the marketing of witchery." These include both conservative Christians, some of whom claim the holiday promotes paganism and the occult, and Wiccans or modern-day witches, some of whom who resent the sight of costumed trick-or-treaters wearing black hats and carrying brooms.
Some conservative evangelical Christians have taken the idea of Halloween "haunted houses" and transformed them into "hell houses," where horrifying images are meant to warn visitors where bad behavior can lead them. "You go through rooms and see women going through abortions and men dying of AIDS," says Rogers.
Wiccans, on the other hand, he says, "have their own take on Halloween. They make it into a kind of peacenik festival remembering the dead."
The Wiccan Way
Wiccans and neo-pagans are more likely to think of the day as Samhain than Halloween, and they hark back to some of the ancient Celtic traditions.
"The major focus on our celebration today is on our ancestors, who are remembered much as they are in the Mexican celebration called The Day of the Dead," says Wiccan Starwind Evensong, a freelance graphic artist from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"Many of our Samhain rituals involve the recalling those who have gonebefore. Traditionally it can be anyone in one's family who has passed on,with emphasis on the recently deceased, but it has extended, for many of us,to those who has been important to us in our lives," she writes in an e-mail.
"Often we host 'dumbsuppers' in which we welcome the spirits of our beloved dead, set a placefor them at the table, and honor them as if they are in attendance. A ritualsituation may invite the ancestors to join as they are remembered, and thenare bid farewell at ritual's end."
The ‘Velcro’ Holiday
Although Halloween has evolved greatly over the centuries and has come to mean different things to different groups, Rogers believes its observation will continue — perhaps, in part, because it's so profitable. Americans, he says, spend close to $7 billion on the holiday.
"I can't see it not surviving, though I think actually it's probably reached a level of consumption that will eventually plateau," he says. "It's a holiday that most people think is fun for the kids. And it's the 20-somethings that love the holiday — it's a great party night."
Both Samhain and Halloween have been adapted considerably over the years, says Suppe, and that process will continue.
"You can think of Halloween as kind of like Velcro," he says. "Lots of things get attached to it."