Carol O'Meara, Colorado State University Extension

Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension

Think of Halloween and what springs to mind? If Tootsie rolls and dum-dums, snickers, or Reese’s are how you celebrate Samhain, you might want to brush up on your history. The most important of the Celtic fire festivals has a lot more to offer.

Samhain is the last day of the Celtic year, celebrating the end of harvest and beginning of winter as well as the light half of the year giving way to the dark. The Celts believed that on this night the veil between the world of the living and the dead was thinnest, when ghosts returned to walk the earth. What those ghosts are looking for is open to speculation; I think they’re searching for the tomatoes the squirrels stole from the garden.

Bonfires were lit and from them home hearth fires, left to gutter out during harvest, were relit. Because monsters and dead relatives were believed to be wandering about, to avoiding running into them, people dressed in costumes of animal skins and masks. These shapeshifting monsters – called Púca – could be convinced to leave a homestead alone if given treats.

Original foods of this festival mirrored the bounty of the land the Celts called home, though Samhain was primarily celebrated in Ireland and Great Britain. Walnuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts all had a role in some traditions of Samhain, particularly  in helping young women divine their future husbands.

Unmarried women would take several nuts, name each one for their prospective lovers, then toss them in the fire to see which burned out or stayed lit the longest. The nut that burned the longest represented the truest lover for her to set her sights on. There are no records of this actually working, but it probably had as much success as the online dating services I’ve heard about.

Once the Romans conquered Europe and Britain, their settlers brought their beliefs with them, including Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees. She is often depicted with an apple, and as the Romans blended their religion with the Celtic ones, apples became part of Samhain traditions.

As Christianity spread its influence, many pagan beliefs were incorporated into their celebrations, including Samhain. Over time, Catholic Popes moved the religious observance for tributes to martyrs from May 13 to November 1, added saints into the mix, and finally tossed in honoring anyone who had died on All Hallow’s day (today it’s known as All Soul’s day).

It was at this time that Samhain became “All-hallows-even” then “Hallow Eve,” still later “Hallowe’en” and then of course Halloween. But the belief in wandering spooks remained, and people placed lit candles in windows or carved turnips to ward off evil. Soul cakes were popular for offerings left on doorsteps, graves, or roadsides to feed hungry ghosts and convince them to not make mischief on that homeowner’s crops or livestock.

Irish immigrants fleeing the famine arrived in America with traditions in tow, and quickly traded the turnip for pumpkins when carving Jack-O-Lanterns. Leaving treats to appease the dead gave way to children knocking on our doors instead, and a multi-million-dollar industry was born.

If you’re looking for fresh décor this month, grab some apples, nuts, pumpkins, and turnips for the table centerpiece. Light a candle on October 31, place it in the window, and don’t talk to Púca.

By Carol A. O’Meara. Carol is an Extension Agent – Horticulture Entomology at Colorado State University Extension Boulder County. For more information contact CSU Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Road, Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6377, e-mail comeara@bouldercounty.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.