Do you suffer from Samhainphobia? A short history of Halloween might help

By Richard Ploch | Oct 14, 2013

It’s no surprise that people dogged by wiccaphobia (fear of witches), ailurophobia (fear of cats), phasmophobia (fear of ghosts), hemophobia (fear of blood) and thanatophobia (fear of death) suffer greatly during the days leading up to Oct. 31. They are plagued with samhainphobia, a fear of Halloween — and if you are afflicted with that anxiety, you are not alone.

Along neighborhood streets, some houses are dark inside with shades drawn, porch lights off and no decorations outside to encourage visitors. These are the homes of those who quietly wait for the noise and unexpected frights of Halloween to pass by for another year. For those who love it, as you’ve probably heard, Halloween has become a growing holiday spending spree in our country, second only to Christmas. Obviously the $6 billion spent by American families on candy, costumes and decorations is moved along by the creative marketing of those who profit from their sales, but there is also clearly something within us that wants to let loose and explore the imaginary, scarier sides of life. For children, it is a highlight of the year to dress up as a favorite fantasy character. Sales of costumes for adults is also on the increase, so it helps to understand where this celebration originated and how its customs evolved to the way we celebrate Oct. 31 today.

As is true for our other holidays, American Halloween traditions were scooped up from people who lived long before the Christian era. Centuries ago, Celtic people (early Europeans) held a festival called Samhain at the end of the harvest season. According to the History,com web site, the end of October (on our calendar) was the time when cattle were brought back from summer pastures and crops gathered in. Bonfires were lit and rituals held that included people in costumes leading their livestock between the bonfires as a cleansing ritual. At the end of the harvest season, ancient people believed that doorways to the Otherworld opened enough for the souls of the dead to come into our world.

We have to remember what it was like for people at the end of the warmer, sunlit months who knew the darker, colder months were growing near. It was a fearful time — no electric lights, no flannel pajamas and furnaces and no winter source for fresh food. The boundaries between this life and the next were considered thin. What if you thought ghosts of the dead would slip into this world and enter your home? You too would wear a mask so that the spirit would not recognize you and think instead that you were one of them, and you would also place treats outside your door to appease the ghosts and keep them outside.

Then along came Pope Gregory III in the eighth century, who set Nov. 1 as a day to honor all the saints and martyrs of the church, a nice observance. This became All Saints Day, or All-Hallowsmas, and is observed even today in many Christian churches as a time to remember and honor our loved ones who have died.

The evening before All Saints Day was christened All Hallows Eve, later Hallowe’en. In our earlier times, when we were a more agrarian people, the Halloween public events were a celebration of harvest time when people told fortunes, danced and sang, told ghost stories and bobbed for apples. Town sponsored community events became popular in cities during the 1920s and 30s. However, vandalism began to plague the celebrations in many communities and by the 1950s town leaders planned ahead, limited the vandalism and directed the Halloween fun into a holiday directed mainly at the young.

Pumpkin carving originated with the Irish who first carved faces in turnips, potatoes or rutabagas and placed candles inside as a way to ward off evil spirits. Later, pumpkins, which were native to South America, became a popular food source and their popularity spread throughout all the Americas. When Irish immigrants arrived here and discovered the pumpkin, a new Halloween ritual was born. According to Irish legend, Jack O’Lanterns were named after a stingy man named Jack who, because he had tricked the devil several times, was forbidden entrance into both heaven and hell and was condemned to wander the Earth, waving his lantern to lead people down wayward paths.

The orange color for Halloween decorations is the color of harvest and autumn. It’s also a symbol of strength and endurance. Black is a color of darkness and reminds us that Halloween was once a festival marking the boundaries between life and death.

This year, if you still suffer from samhainphobia, the best cure may not be more information, though. A Scottish prayer will be more comforting: “From ghoulies and ghosties, long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us!”

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