Hallowe’en is one of the most popular holidays of the year in modern times, but did you know it’s also Celtic New Year? The Celts called their autumn festival Samhain (pronounced sow-win) celebrating the harvest and the start of a new cycle, when crops were done and cold weather was settling in. We can thank them for our Halloween traditions.
Samhain was the original Halloween, before the church transformed it to All Hallows Eve, and the candy and costume companies discovered how lucrative it could be. After all, who doesn’t like to masquerade as someone else and eat chocolate?
But before all the sexy nurse outfits and candy corn, it was a sacred time of year when the veil between the spirit world and our earthly domain fell away, according to Celtic tradition. Mischievous imps cross over and might play tricks on unsuspecting mortals; Pukhas (popular shape-shifting spirits) could lead them astray by appearing to be a friend.
During Samhain, the Irish left offerings for fairies, or Sidhe, and other spirits that might be abroad. Fairies were known to steal children, so Celts dressed as animals and monsters to disguise themselves so ancestors wouldn’t kidnap them – beginning our modern costume traditions.
Until the Irish arrived en masse mid 19th-century, Halloween was not widely celebrated in America. New England’s staunch Protestants disapproved of such activities.
Jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland, inspired by the legend of Stingy Jack, who outwitted the devil several times but paid for his trickery. Jack was cursed to walk the earth eternally, carrying a carved turnip (the original Jack-o’-lantern) glowing with coal the devil hurled from hell. A Jack-o’-lantern placed in a window scared spirits away. In the New World, America’s native pumpkins replaced turnips.
Other popular Halloween traditions also began with the Celts, who built great bonfires to celebrate Samhain and prepared a feast lasting several days. The fires were meant to guide wandering spirits in need of food, inspiring today’s trick or treat. By the early 1900s, local towns encouraged wholesome parties to curtail mischief and eliminate the scarier aspects of the holiday.
If Halloween brings out your inner ghost hunter, there’s lots to find according to Seminole author Carol Perry, who pens the popular Witch City series. Perry’s a natural for writing about the paranormal – born on Halloween Eve in Salem, Massachusetts, she has an active interest in the occult, setting her new paranormal series in a small Florida town.
“One of those little towns Disney and other attractions passed by, a composite of Gulfport, Sanford, and Safety Harbor,” she said. “Ghosts like old hotels, like the ones at the Don Cesar and the Safety Harbor Spa.”
Of course downtown St. Petersburg has its share of hauntings, according to Jessy Breckenridge, manager of archives and collections at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
“Babe Ruth seems to haunt a lot of places,” she said, “And at the comfort station known as Little St. Mary’s there’s a ghost called Agnes who dresses like it’s the 1930s. People say they see her old-fashioned shoes in the next stall.”
The Detroit Hotel has the “Lady in Red,” who supposedly threw herself from the roof when she learned her lover was dead, Breckenridge added.
Though he’s long gone, some folks still say when the wind’s just right, they sometimes hear organ music wafting faintly across the air, from the mausoleum at the old Greenwood Cemetery near Roser Park. The story is Mr. Lewis had an organ installed so he could serenade his wife at night.