When the Veil Thins: Why Halloween Falls on October 31st

Hi, everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful Halloween! I would have liked to post this closer to November 2nd, but my health needed some tending to and Quarterly Bestiary was my October feature. Anyway, it’s still before U. S. Thanksgiving, so if you’re finding yourself missing Halloween, here’s a little trip back!

Halloween has come and gone, on the final day of October as it has for many years. Yet could that soon change? Back in July, the Halloween & Costume Association launched a petition to change the date of Halloween to the last Saturday of October. The petition states making children’s experience safer and more fun as the primary goal.1 As of this writing, the petition is at about 20,732 signatures. So there’s plenty of support for the idea. I can certainly see the appeal. Still, changing the date takes one more step to divorce Halloween from its ancient origins. As we wait for the petition’s fate to be revealed, I think now might be a good time to look back on the history of Halloween and why we have celebrated it on October 31st.

autumn colors
Photo by Harrison Haines on Pexels.com

A Brief History of Halloween

It’s been a long journey to Halloween. The holiday we celebrate today still bears the traces of Celtic Irish Samhain (pronounced SOW-en) combined with two Roman festivals, Feralia and a harvest rite dedicated to Pomona.2 Each existed separately before, but the Romans sought to overwrite Samhain with their holidays after conquering Celtic territory. Ironically, they kept the date of Samhain while moving their own festivals. Feralia commemorated the dead, falling on February 21st since the twelve-month year replaced the ten-month year.3 Pomona’s festival, shared with her husband Vertumnus, was originally August 13th.4

Later, Rome converted to Christianity and again an established holiday was moved to cover up the old one. Pope Boniface IV had declared All Saint’s Day to fall on May 31 in 609, but in the eighth century Pope Gregory III moved the date to November 1st.5 All Soul’s Day was created in 1000, falling on November 2nd, making October 31st All Hallow’s Eve, eventually shortened to Halloween. All these holidays are their own thing, but they form layers of history over Samhain, taking its date on the calendar. So if we want to understand why Halloween is on October 31st, we must start with Samhain.

We have few direct records of ancient Samhain, but we know it had a darker tone than modern Halloween. Literally, as it marked the transition from one year to the next by the Celtic calendar, as well as the shift from the light half of the year, samh, to the dark half of the year, gamh.6 The rituals associated with Samhain reflect that theme of light giving way to dark. It began as hearths were doused and people headed out to build a communal bonfire in the night.7 History.com calls the crops and animal parts burned in these fires “sacrifices.”8 Don’t picture live animals, though. These were the remains of the recent harvest, both plant debris and cattle bones.9 At the end of the night, flames from the bonfire were brought back to light the hearths anew.

Perhaps most importantly, on Samhain, the boundary between the mortal world and the worlds of deities, fairies, and the dead was believed to weaken. Douglas Todd, describing the Celtic attitude toward Samhain, calls it a “thin place.”10 Todd notes this term is used for both times and geographical locations that allow passage between worlds, but to avoid confusion with literal places, I prefer to think of it as a “thin time.”

As a thin time, Samhain could bring danger in the form of scheming fairies—or fae, to use a term less associated with cute innocence—and malevolent spirits of the dead. Dressing up in costumes of monsters began as a way to escape the notice of these wandering ghouls.11 Humans could likewise lose themselves in other realms if they weren’t careful.12 However, the thinner veil also brought visits from loved ones who had passed on. Like with any open door, the thin time carried no good or evil in itself but simply let otherwise separate realms mingle.

The thinning of the veil also meant a time of heightened spiritual insight. The Celtic priests known as Druids took advantage of this aspect to perform divinations and deliver prophecies for the future to their followers.13 Ordinary people might hold silent feasts to entertain their ancestors,14 sharing between the past and the present. Samhain divination rituals continued to develop after the introduction of Christianity, including the belief that standing on the porch of a church on that night, one could see a parade of those who would die in the upcoming year.15 Time itself became an open door on this night, allowing contact with past and future.

But Why October 31st?

So, has Samhain always been celebrated on October 31st? Well, yes and no. One of the fundamental differences between our modern Gregorian calendar and the Celtic calendar is that for the Celts, the day began at sunset, not at midnight.16 Samhain would have started at sunset of October 31st and continued on to the sunset of November 1st. This makes it a bit tricky to say that Samhain fell on a particular day.

And that’s before we even tackle the question of calendar shifts. The closest we have to a record of the Celtic calendar is the Coligny Calendar, a fragmented bronze plate showing a five-year cycle. Scholars still debate many aspects of this calendar, including whether it shows the year beginning with Samhain or another festival, but it is generally agreed to indicate a combination of lunar and solar calculations.17 The average year had 354 days with an occasional leap month.

Any day in such a different system would be hard to match exactly with our modern calendar. The Julian calendar, which pushed out the Celtic system, still gave Samhain a place on its October 31st. However, Julian dates have a tendency to roam compared to our Gregorian dates, despite both years having roughly the same number of days.18 If you’re really determined to find the date of Samhain by its original calendar, Druidcraft Calendar and Caer Australis provide a starting point. To put it simply, though, it’s unlikely our current October 31 falls on exactly the same day the ancient Samhain would have every year.

Calendars are calculated based on signs from the sky, so perhaps we can use that to find the thin time of the original Samhain. Again, however, it’s no simple matter. There’s no agreement on whether the Coligny calendar shows months as starting on the full, new, or quarter moon, extremely important information for calculating the original Samhain.19 The full moon is a popular choice, such as the Full Hunter’s Moon mentioned on Nifty Buckles’s blog.20 However, the fact is, we just don’t have enough information to be sure.

Then there’s the possibility of calculating Samhain by the stars. In the Julian calendar, in  use when All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day were moved, October 31st once corresponded with the day when the constellation Pleiades was at its highest in the midnight sky.21 By our modern Gregorian calendar, the highest point of Pleiades now falls on November 7.22 However, a different astronomical event does mark our October 31st: the South Taurid meteor shower. As recently as 2005, this shower has periodically produced a display dubbed “Halloween Fireballs.” In Scotland, fireball meteors have been likened to ghosts or souls, a key theme of Samhain, and the lights may be connected to the Hindu celebration Diwali, which takes place around the same time.23 So even if it’s not exactly the same day as the original Samhain, maybe October 31st is still a thin time.

astronomy comet constellation cosmos
Photo by Neale LaSalle on Pexels.com

Samhain Today

Why does any of this stuff about thin times matter? Well, in your own life, it may not. When our lives are happily focused on the present, we have no need of the disruption thin times can bring. However, sometimes we need a disruption, an opportunity to do something different. Thin times provide us with that opportunity.

This may be why even today, thousands of people still celebrate Samhain.24 Not through Halloween; it may be connected to Samhain but modern Halloween is a thin time of a different sort. On Halloween, the lines of identity are blurred and for one night we can freely parade as something or someone else. On Samhain, the doors to the past and the future, the veil between the known and the unknown, all become blurred. Modern Samhain celebrations tend to emphasize the remembrance of those past and divination of the future rather than sacrifices,25 as well as community bonfires and storytelling.26 So if you are looking for a time to contemplate what’s lost, what’s to come, and maybe draw closer to the light as the dark closes in, you might be looking for Samhain.

Samhain still has a relatively strong media presence, though mostly as a horror element instead of as a thin time. One recent depiction where the plot does hinge on the thinning veil is “The Darkest Hour,” a two-part episode of the BBC television series Merlin. Arthur, addressing his people at the feast of Samhain, calls it “a time to remember those we have lost.”27 The show’s main villain, Morgana, meanwhile uses Samhain’s midnight, described as “the very moment when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest,” to tear the veil completely open through a blood sacrifice. Ghostly beings called Dorocha then terrorize Camelot and Arthur travels with his knights and Merlin to ask the Cailleach, Guardian of the Spirit World, to mend the veil through another sacrifice.


A brief digression to address the elephant in the room: Human sacrifice is an element of Samhain, and paganism in general, still fearfully imagined in horror movies. The Annals of the Four Masters describes the sacrifice of first-born children and possibly kings on Samhain.28 However, since the authors were monks in the pay of late medieval aristocracy, they may be biased.29 Biased doesn’t mean wrong, of course, but while we have archaeological evidence for Celtic sacrifice of high-born men,30 the main archaeological find connected to Samhain is signs of “intense burning” that probably relate to the bonfire at the Hill of Ward.31 A child’s skeleton was also found near the hill, but no conclusions have been drawn yet.

Certainly modern celebrations of Samhain do not involve human sacrifice, but the fear persists and often hurts those who identify as pagan or Wiccan. One mother tells how her children often lost friends over their religion.32 The sacrificial part of “The Darkest Hour” unfortunately plays on this fear. I know it’s for drama, but it’s still uncomfortable. The fact that Arthur plans to offer himself as the counter sacrifice takes on a historical note given he is both a first son and a high-born man. However, if the Druids did practice human sacrifice on Samhain, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to release evil death spirits to freeze whole villages as in Merlin. Whoever opened the veil would probably get booted into it as the sacrifice to close it.


The rest of “The Darkest Hour,” like most of Merlin, mixes fantasy with some accurate mythology. Supporters of the full moon marking Samhain will be pleased to see it shining down on Camelot, though the significance of midnight is a more modern touch.33 The Cailleach is associated with Samhain and is sometimes considered a guardian of the spirit world as in the show.34 The Dorocha, on the other hand, are mostly made up, sharing nothing but part of their name with a malevolent fairy servant.35 The episode is notable for portraying Samhain as positive under normal circumstances, but there’s still a strong element of fear.

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“Season 2 Merlin Promo High Res (65)” by ChibiChiii is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

So this the story of October 31st, currently the date of Halloween and Samhain. In the future, who knows? The fate of the petition is far from certain, but I am electing to remain neutral on it. I want the numbers behind it to reflect those who have a vested interest in the change. I have no problem with changing the date for Halloween, since those serious about Samhain will continue to celebrate it separately. In fact, it might help to clear up confusion about them if they occur on different dates. It may even allow a return to the Celtic calculations for Samhain. As for myself, as a person who has lost but still dreams of the future, as a person who sometimes likes to wear a different mask, I’ll continue to enjoy both thin times.

 

Sources

  1. “Petition: Change Halloween to be celebrated on the last Saturday of every October,” Change.org, accessed Oct. 22, 2019, https://www.change.org/p/change-halloween.
  2. “Halloween 2019,” History.com, last modified Nov. 1, 2019, accessed October 26, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.
  3. Schilling, Robert, “Roman Festivals and Their Significance,” Acta Classica 7 (1994): 44-56. JSTOR (24591223). 45.
  4. Sarudy, Barbara W., “Celebrating the Earth’s Bounty – Myth of Pomona & Vertumnus – Gardens, Orchards, & Finding Love,” It’s About Time, posted Aug. 13, 2019, accessed November 5, 2019, https://bjws.blogspot.com/2019/08/celebrating-earths-bounty-myth-of_13.html.
  5. “Halloween 2019.”
  6. Mac Cana, Proinsias, “Celtic Religion: An Overview,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones, Vol. 3. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005) 1478-1497. Gale In Context: World History. Pg. 1491.
  7. Lanteigne, Louisette , “It’s Time to Discover the True Meaning of Halloween,” The Record, October 2002, Proquest.
  8. “Halloween 2019.”
  9. Lanteigne, “True Meaning.”
  10. Todd, Douglas, “Looking for Ghosts? Try a ‘Thin Place’; Almost Half of All Canadians, Regardless of Their Religious Beliefs, Agree We Can Have Contact with the Spiritual World,” The Vancouver Sun, Oct. 30, 2010, Proquest.
  11. Todd, “‘Thin Place.’”
  12. “Samhain (Samain) – The Celtic roots of Halloween,” Newgrange.com, last modified Aug 18, 2019, accessed November 1, 2019, https://www.newgrange.com/samhain.htm.
  13. “Halloween 2019.”
  14. Trevarthen, Geo Athena, “The Celtic Origins of Halloween Transcend Fear,” Phi Kappa Phi Forum 90, no. 3 (Fall 2010): 6-7. Proquest. 6.
  15. “Samain” Newgrange.com.
  16. Rhatigan, Catherine, and Isabelle Hauser, “The Celtic Calendar,” The Celtic Fragment, accessed Nov 2, 2019, https://thecelticfragment.com/der-keltische-kalender/the-celtic-calendar/.
  17. Jones, S. Rhys, and John Bonsing, “The Celtic Calendar,” Caer Australis, last modified Jan7, 2012, accessed November 2, 2019, http://caeraustralis.com.au/celtcalmain.htm.
  18. “How it Works,” Druidcraft Calendar, accessed Nov 8, 2019, https://druidcraftcalendar.co.uk/why-a-new-calendar/.
  19. Jeffers, Regina, “The Gaulish Coligny Calendar,” Every Woman Dreams…, posted May 16, 2014, accessed Nov 2, 2019, https://reginajeffers.blog/2014/05/16/the-gaulish-coligny-calendar/.
  20. Nifty Buckles, “Samhain and Halloween Folklore,” Nifty Buckles Folklore Fun, posted Oct 10, 2019, accessed October 10, 2019, https://folklorefun.wordpress.com/2019/10/10/the-folkore-of-samhain-halloween/.
  21. O’Meara, Stephen James, “The Taurid Meteor Shower,” Astronomy, Oct 2016, Proquest.
  22. Cheyenne Astronomical Society, “Wyoming Skies: Halloween Means Beautiful Star Clusters, Astronomical Holiday,” Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Oct27, 2019, https://www.wyomingnews.com/wyoming-skies-halloween-means-beautiful-star-clusters-astronomical-holiday/article_1522f86d-1552-53fb-9f9c-8be290a4603e.html.
  23. O’Meara, “Taurid.”
  24. Tortorello, Michael, “If a Druid Rings the Doorbell,” New York Times, Oct 30, 2013, Proquest.
  25. Leicht, Linda, “Closer to the Dead,” Springfield News Leader, Oct 30, 2004, Proquest.
  26. Tortorello, “Druid,”
  27. Merlin, “The Darkest Hour Part 1,” season 4 episode 1, directed by Alice Troughton, written by Julian Jones, Jake Michie, John Capps, and Julian Murphy, BBC, Oct 1 2011.
  28. “Samhain and Irish Mythology,” Stair na hÉireann | History of Ireland, accessed Nov 6, 2019, https://stairnaheireann.net/2015/10/31/samhain-and-irish-mythology/.
  29. “An ABC of Irish Annals,” Irish History Podcast, posted Sept 23, 2010, accessed Nov 6, 2019, https://irishhistorypodcast.ie/an-abc-of-irish-annals/.
  30. “Did the Celts or Druids Perform Human Sacrifice?” The Digital Medievalist: Celtic Studies Resources, accessed Nov 6, 2019, https://www.digitalmedievalist.com/opinionated-celtic-faqs/human-sacrifice/.
  31. McCan, Nuala, “Hill of Ward: Did Halloween Begin on ‘Magical’ Ancient Site?” BBC News, Oct 30, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-29785031.
  32. Leicht, “Closer.”
  33. Merlin, “The Darkest Hour Part 1.”
  34. Eric Edwards, “The Cailleachs of Gaelic and Celtic Lore,” Eric Edwards Collected Works, posted May 2, 2015, accessed Nov 5, 2019, https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/the-cailleach/.
  35. “Overview: Far Dorocha,” Oxford Reference, accessed Nov 5, 2019, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095810500.

19 thoughts on “When the Veil Thins: Why Halloween Falls on October 31st

  1. For this part of South America, this celebration has no relevance. It is limited, in some places, only children are disguised at school. Still, your article is very interesting. I had no idea where it appeared or why it is celebrated. Now I have a clear concept. Excellent narration I enjoyed reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! You make a good point. From what I understand, Halloween is mostly big in the U. S. and Canada, maybe the U.K. these days. Wearing costumes seems to have caught on in more countries, but I can understand why sending kids door to door to ask strangers for candy isn’t as common.

      Liked by 2 people

            1. Probably not. 😉 Americans have a tendency to take a few aspects of something from another culture, mix it with whatever they like, and then get really into it. Take American sushi, for example. Everyone likes to rave about how they love sushi, but then I’ll see this thing that’s deep fried and slathered in mayonnaise on the menu. 😑

              Liked by 1 person

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