Funny thing — they don’t look Druish

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Whether you go to or throw a party, take the kids trick-or-treating, join any of the many activities around Queens, decorate your home with ghosts and skeletons, or visit haunted houses on Oct. 31, you may not realize that you’re actually celebrating an ancient sun-god religion.

The Celts, who occupied northern and western pre-Christian Europe, practiced the nature-worshiping religion of Druidism. On their calendar, Nov. 1 was the beginning of the year, so Oct. 31 was their New Year’s Eve.

It also marked the autumn harvest festival of Samhain. The name “Halloween” came later, originating from Christian Europe, because Nov. 1 was All Saints’ Day and the holy evening before was “All Hallows Eve.”

For the Druids, ghosts, witches, and spirits were not just the stuff of parties — it was a serious belief system. They believed that on Samhain, the Lord of Death, with the right placating, would allow the spirits of those who had died in the past 12 months to spend a few hours at their homes warming themselves by the fire and taking in the pleasant smells of cooking.

But the Lord of Death would release evil spirits as well; the Druids would light bonfires on Samhain to scare these spirits away, and dress up to make themselves look like these inhabitants of the dark so as not to be harmed by them. For several days beforehand young people would go around asking for wood and other materials for the fires — a likely origin of trick-or-treating.

The Druids also believed that women who had sold themselves to the Devil, becoming witches, would use that night to ride through the skies on their broomsticks Elves and fairies would abound, and agitated ghosts would play tricks on the people.

After the Romans conquered Britain, some Roman customs were integrated into the observance of Samhain, such as a feast honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruits, particularly apples.

Apples were an important part of the festival even before the Roman conquest. In one tradition, a young man or woman would toss apple peelings, and the shape that it landed in was supposed to designate the initial of a future sweetheart.

There were many other beliefs associated with young romance. A maiden would carry a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other, and hope to see in the candle-lit mirror the face of who her husband would be. In another custom, a young man would be blindfolded and would choose one of three bowls: an empty bowl foretold that he’d remain a bachelor, and a bowl full of dirty water showed he would marry a widow. If he was lucky enough to choose the bowl with clear water, he’d marry a young, pretty girl.

In America, the Halloween tradition of turning a pumpkin into a Jack-o’-lantern comes from an old Irish folk tale. It seems that a stingy Irishman named Jack incessantly played tricks on the Devil. The Devil finally had enough and condemned him to eternally wander around the world, going neither to Heaven nor Hell, carrying a lantern to light his way.

Of course today, he’s carrying a flashlight.

Reach Qguide Editor David Glenn by e-mail at, or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

Updated 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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