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The astronomical origins of Halloween

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Darrell Heath
Astronomy Columnist

Most people have a favorite
holiday and mine has
always been Halloween. A
large part of that has to do
with it being in Fall (my favorite
season) and also because
of all the things I connect
it with from my childhood:
my grandmother’s apple
cobblers and pumpkin pies,
the Halloween carnivals at
my school (yes, in those
days we acknowledged it
as a “Halloween carnival”
and not as a “Fall festival”),
the beautiful fall leaf colors,
carving jack-o-lanterns, trickr-
treating with my friends,
and spooky stories of headless
horsemen, ghosts, and
tell-tale hearts.
But what you are really
wondering about is how
Halloween can possibly be
connected to astronomy. It
all has to do with things like
the rise of agriculture, the
changing seasons, religious
beliefs, and how our ancient
ancestors marked time.
Our prehistoric ancestors
were hunter-gatherers and
they noticed more about
the natural world than you
and I could ever hope to
and this certainly included
the motions of the Sun and
night sky. When humans
became farmers they began
to watch the skies as though
their very lives depended
on it, because it did. There
would be no such things
as calendars as you and I
know them until people had
a system of writing and that
wouldn’t happen until the
Bronze Age. So in order to
know when to plant crops,
when to get ready for the
harvest, when to expect dry
seasons and wet seasons,
etc. ancient people relied on
their knowledge of the natural
world in order to organize
their lives and the best calendar
available to them was
literally over their heads.
The position of the Sun in
the sky established the time
of day while the phase cycle
of the Moon delineated the
month (you can even hear an
echo of this long tradition in
the word “month” itself). But
as a farmer you need to keep
track of seasonal changes so
things like where along the
horizon the Sun rises and
sets and what familiar star
patterns are in view helped
to establish this.
The most important dates
on astronomical calendars
were the solstices and the
equinoxes. There are two
solstices: the winter and
summer. The summer is
marked by the Sun rising
furthest to the northeast and
setting furthest in the northwest,
while in the winter it
rises furthest southeast and
sets in the southwest. That’s
right, the Sun doesn’t always
rise due east or set due west.
There are only two days out
of the year this happens and
that is on the fall and spring
equinoxes.
In ancient Britain, long
before the Romans came
to those shores, the Celts
recognized what is known as
“cross quarter days” on their
astronomical calendars.
These were halfway marks
in between the equinoxes
and the solstices and one
of their most sacred cross
quarter days was called
“Samhain” (pronounced
“sah-win”). Samhain was
the time to celebrate the
harvest of summer and to
prepare for the hardships of
winter. For the Celts hardship
would most likely mean
starvation and death for
many in their community.
Samhain was a celebration
of the current bounty and
a big symbolic poke in the
eye at death itself. The Celts
also believed that on Samhain
the veil between this
world and the next became
thinner and that the spirits
of those who died over the
past year would come back
to pay a final visit with the
living. Bon fires were lit and
food set out in anticipation of
such a visit. It even became
a tradition for folks to dress
up in disguise so that the evil
spirits would not recognize
them, this later evolved into
children getting dressed
up and going door to door
to recite a bit of verse in
exchange for food. Carving
out gourds or turnips and
making them into lanterns
with faces is also an ancient
tradition from the Celts and
they served to keep the
more mischievous spirits
at bay.
Samhain was celebrated
on or about October 31st
or November 1st but what
was the astronomical cue
to let all this merry making
begin? Within the Celtic
communities there was a
certain class of learned folks
called Druids and they were
the ones on the lookout for
this special harbinger. What
they were looking out for
was when the star cluster
we call the Pleiades (or, “the
Seven Sisters”) reached its
highest point at midnight for
the entire year. When this
happened it was party time
for the Celtic people!
When the Romans conquered
Britain they adopted
the celebration of Samhain
and, in turn, when the Romans
converted to Christianity
they still kept it on but
put a different spin on it by
creating an All Saints Day to
follow right after it.
Halloween is thousands
of years old and while it has
undergone changes over
time we humans are much
the same; we love to have
a good time and we are still
fearful of our own mortality.
I suspect we always will be
but we still have those familiar
and friendly sparks of
light in the night sky to both
comfort and inspire us.