Ask A Witch: Samhain Follow-up

Last week, on the Friday before Samhain, I had the great opportunity to be the feature guest on a special edition of NuLife Radio for Halloween.  I had the chance to talk a bit about Halloween, Samhain, Wicca, Witchcraft, magick…really we could have gone four hours with the show and not just the two hours that the show was.  It was a lot of fun and I hope to get the chance to be back on the show in the near future!  If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, you can catch the stream or download the show on the NuLife Radio page.  You can also search for the show on iTunes and download it there.  There were some technical difficulties during the show (we kept getting disconnected from the BTR switchboard so there are a few bits that might be missing from the conversation).  Since there was only so much time to talk about an awful lot of stuff, I got a few Ask A Witch messages from people who had some other questions about these two holidays so I thought I’d answer them here!

Hi Rowan!

I loved the show last night and I hope they have you back on.  You’re fun to listen to!  But I had a question since this never was mentioned on the show.  I don’t know the origin of the name for Halloween.  Could you explain where the name comes from.  If Halloween is rooted in Samhain, like you explained, I don’t get where the name Halloween comes from.


Hi Dave!

Thanks for listening to the show and writing in, and with such a great question!  I can’t believe I missed out on talking about that.  Halloween is rooted in Samhain, but it’s also somewhat connected to an early holiday of the church that was celebrated in Rome, a holiday called Lemuria, also known as the Feast of the Lemures, which was actually a Pagan celebration originally to honor the restless spirits of the dead.  This was a holiday celebrated on May 13th and on May 13th of 609 Pope Boniface IV had consecrated the Pantheon building in Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all martyred saints.  This began the yearly celebration of All Saints Day, which at the time was known as All Hallows; hallows is another word for saint.  It was a way for the church to use a similar theme of an existing Pagan celebration as a template for their own in hopes of making conversion and transition easier for the Pagans, something that you see all through the church’s attempts to Christianize the Pagan world.

Pope Gregory III was responsible for changing the date of All Hallows from May 13 to November 1 after realizing that the Celtic people had another festival, similar to Lemuria, which occurred at this time.  This festival was known as Samhain and, as we know, is both a harvest festival as well as a time for honoring the dead.  Pope Gregory realized that these people weren’t celebrating All Hallows so their attempt to use the May 13 date for the purpose of conversion wasn’t working so the holiday was moved to November 1 at some point during the 730s.

Now we can see the beginnings of the name a bit more clearly by understanding these holidays that are all happening.  November 1 is All Hallows so the night before, October 31, was known as All Hallows Evening which would later become All Hallows Eve.  Over time this the “All” would get dropped and it would soon just be Hallows Eve and eventually Hallow’een though a mish mash of the words and corruption of the pronunciation. Eventually (and I believe this was an American influence) the word came to be spelled Halloween.  So the name Halloween comes from All Saints Evening.


On the NuLife show you talked very briefly about trick or treating but I was hoping you could add to what you said there.  I grew up not allowed to trick or treat and we didn’t really celebrate Halloween because my grandmother felt it was “the Devil’s holiday”.  I have always allowed my children to participate in Halloween because since they are in public school it would be hard to really shelter them from it.  I don’t believe it’s an evil holiday but I’ll be honest to say that I don’t know the origins of what I am allowing my children to do.  I would just like to know if you can give me some ideas about where trick or treating really came from.

Thank you and Happy Holidays to you!

Thank you for your question Meghan!

There are several believed origins of trick-or-treating.  One is the one that I believe I had shared on the show which had to do with the processions from towns and villages out to the edge of the woods or the boundaries of the town to leave offerings for the spirits.  Since it was believed that the spirits would be able to come and interact with the living on this night it was also thought that they could come and do you harm if they had any reason to want to do such a thing.  This lead many to believe that if they made offerings of food and left them out at the edge of the village then the spirits would be appeased by these offerings and not come further into town to bother anyone. Even with this as a practice not everyone walked out of the village with their offerings and instead would just place them at the front door of the home for the visiting ghostly guests.  It’s believed that people would leave food and drink that were favorites of the people who had passed away hoping that this would be even more incentive for them to leave the living alone.

Another possible, and likely more direct origin, is that of Souling, a tradition that was born out of the British Isles in medieval times.  People would dress in rags and disguises, though often the people that participated in this tradition were actually poor and not just regular town folk dressed in rags. These people would go from home to home offering up prayers for the dead in exchange for soul cakes.  It was believed that on this night the souls that were trapped in purgatory could be released into heaven, or hell if that was their fate, by having prayers said for this.  These soul cakes were spiced cakes made with raisins or currants in them.  The more cakes someone was given the more prayers they promised to say over the graves of a loved one for a person.  The more prayers that were said, the faster the release from purgatory.

The church actually encouraged this tradition because it took the idea of making offerings to spirits away and replaced it with the idea of prayer for the departed.  So rather than trying to bargain with spirits the church saw this more as just a tradition of prayer and therefore it was welcomed.  It also was a way to lessen the interest and desire to participate in the Pagan offering traditions and instead follow a church sanctioned practice.

In the 18th century this tradition became a bit different as people would go from home to home offering up songs and carols, even putting on little skits and plays for people, in exchange for food.  At this point giving apples and warmed nuts became the traditional Halloween treats.

As time would come to pass this tradition would go from being about prayer and the church to being much more of a begging tradition.  People of all manner of circumstance would dress in disguises and come to the doors of people’s home and ask them if they would give them a treat or suffer a trick.  If you didn’t have something to give them (a treat of sweets or other food) then you would be subjected to a trick.  These could vary greatly from having something moved or overturned on the property to things more serious like broken windows.  In England a popular trick was to have smoke blown into the keyholes of doors or have glass bottled broken against the home to simulate the sound of windows being broken.  Over time it would be seen that, to give a treat was a far better option than to possibly suffer a trick.

Happy Halloween Rowan!

Thank you for the fun and entertaining show!  I had to listen to the stream the following day but I really enjoyed it and I do hope you get a chance to be on the show again or maybe you should think about starting your own podcast!

Anyway, I wanted to ask about Jack O’ Lanterns.  I remember as a kid hearing a story that explained where they came from but I don’t recall it.  I have a 5 year old son who loves them, he calls them pumpkies, and I would love to be able to tell him the myth about them next year.  I’m also just curious about why we still use them like we do.

Thanks for doing what you do!

Hi Crystal!  Thank you for your kind words!

The origin of the Jack O’ Lantern comes from a folklore tale from Ireland about a character known as Stingy Jack. The story has some decidely Christian elements, namely the Devil and the involvement of heaven and hell, things not native to the Irish Celts, so it’s possible that this is a tale that came about much later in the formation of the holiday after the Christians came to Ireland.  There are two versions of this story, at least that I know, though I’m sure there are others.  One involved Jack stumbling around drunk and being found by the Devil; he strikes a deal with the Devil to allow him to get even more drunk before being taken to hell and when it comes time to pay the bar tab he convinces the Devil to morph into a silver coin with which to pay the tab.  Instead of paying with the coin Jack places the coin (the morphed Devil) into his pocket where he also has a small crucifix.  He agrees to free the Devil from his pocket in exchange for 10 more years of freedom.  When the time passes and the Devil comes to collect Jack puts up a fight and wins again but eventually his continued life of drinking causes him to meet his demise and when he’s sent to hell the Devil refuses him entry and sets him off with a piece of coal to light his way across the darkened earth where he is doomed to roam aimlessly for all eternity.

The other story is a little more “cute” and a bit more child-friendly, you could say, and is actually the one I personally like.

Jack was a farmer who was known by everyone as an absolutely horrible person.  He was a drunk, a liar and a cheat and everyone in his village avoided him and he avoided them.  He was a tall, lanky man who was missing teeth and often scared small children because he was so ugly.  So Jack kept to himself and stayed on his farm, not doing much work, and really just killing time.

One day the Devil was looking around for a soul to take into hell and he stumbled across Jack who was just laying around in the sun on his farm, completely neglecting his duties.  The Devil sneaks up to Jack as he sleeps and says “Jack, I’ve come for you soul.”

Jack jumps up from his sleep and is a little startled but says to the Devil “If you can climb up to the top of that oak tree you can have it.  I know my soul is pretty worthless so it doesn’t matter to me.”

The Devil climbs the tree but on his way up to the top he gets stuck.  The Devil calls down to Jack for some help but Jack refuses and tells him that he figures if the Devil is trapped in the tree he can’t take his soul and he’ll be safe.  The Devil thinks about this and tells Jack that if he helps him get down he’ll grant Jack a wish, basically, and that anything he wants will be his.  Jack agrees and decides to help the Devil down and tells him that he wants to make a deal.  The Devil says, “Anything you want, you can have it.”

Jack says “Promise me that no matter what I do and no matter what happens to me when I die, I’ll never have to go to hell.”  The Devil agrees and tells Jack he’ll never had to worry about going to hell.  The Devil leaves and Jack is pleased thinking he’s just outsmarted the Devil.

Jack goes about his life and continues to be a miserable person, lying, cheating, stealing, drinking, doing everything that probably should have gotten him sent to hell.  Then one day it all catches up to him and Jack dies.  Jack goes to heaven and he’s refused almost before even getting to the pearly gates.  He’s told he has to go to hell as that’s where he’s expected.  He goes to hell, momentarily forgetting his deal he made with the Devil, and he’s denied entry there too.

A demon guarding the entrance to hell tells Jack that he’s not allowed in.  Jack, confused about what he’s supposed to do now, causes a scene and begins to argue with the demon.  The demon tells him that he made a deal with the Devil to never be allowed in hell and that unless he can do something that would exchange his soul for the soul of another, he can’t come in.  Jack, a bit confused, is told that he can go back to earth and seek out a soul to exchange for his.  As Jack gets ready to leave he realizes he can’t see and he again begins to complain to the demon.  The demon throws Jack a glowing piece of coal and tells him that the coal will never go out and to use it to light his way.  Since the coal was hot Jack found a turnip in his garden, hallowed it out, and place the coal inside and carried it this way.

Now, the origin of creating and lighting Jack O’ Lanterns comes from the idea tied to this myth that says if you light a coal or a candle and place it inside a hollowed out turnip Jack will think you’re a lost soul as well and therefore he wont come to bother you to try and steal your soul.

The other inevitable question here is why then do we use pumpkins if the story talks about turnips?  Pumpkins are not native to Ireland; they are a native vegetable of America and when the Irish begin to immigrate to America they brought this tradition with them but quickly found that the pumpkin, which was ripe and in season during the harvest festivals when a story like this was told, were much easier to hollow out.  It was also in American in the Victorian age when the practice of carving faces into the pumpkins began.  It is thought that this was another addition to trying to convince any wondering spirits that the people in possession of the scary looking lantern were either lost souls themselves or generally not someone that you would want to approach.

I just wanted to, again, thank everyone for their questions and thank everyone who listened to the show!  Be sure to check out the playback stream and if you want to hear me back on NuLife Radio drop Dax and Mark a line and let them know what you’d like to hear me talk about on the show.  I know I’d be happy to be back on so let them know you’d like to hear me come back.  🙂

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