Historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while "some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead calledParentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain", which comes from the Old Irish for "summer's end". Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar and was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It was held on or about October 31 – November 1 and kindred festivals were held at the same time of year by the Brittonic Celts; for example Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany). Samhain and Calan Gaeaf are mentioned in some of the earliest Irish and Welsh literature. The names have been used by historians to refer to Celtic Halloween customs up until the 19th century, and are still the Gaelic and Welsh names for Halloween.
Samhain/Calan Gaeaf marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or the 'darker half' of the year...Special bonfires were lit and there were rituals involving them. Their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers, and were also used for divination. It is suggested that the fires were a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic – they mimicked the Sun, helping the "powers of growth" and holding back the decay and darkness of winter.
The tradition of the Halloween bonfire was captured for eternity in the 1940 film "Meet Me in St. Louis." If you're a Judy Garland fan, you remember the movie well...but do you remember the dark Halloween scene, starring the darling Margaret O'Brien? It was the most fascinating part of the movie, to me, as it captured a mischievous spirit of past times that, if enacted by children today, would land them in juvenile detention halls and counseling sessions for years.
As you're out walking your little one this evening, flashlight and band-aids in hand, try to imagine turning the corner and coming on the scene of ten- and twelve-year-olds throwing wooden furniture onto a bonfire in the middle of the street. Or imagine opening the door with a bowl of candy in your hands, and being dowsed with a sackful of flour. And then think, how would I react?
Yes, times change. But wood will somehow, and in some way, always be with us. And that, unlike a sack of flour in the face, will remain a good thing.