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Is Spain's Galicia the true birthplace of Halloween?

Esme Fox
Esme Fox - [email protected]
Is Spain's Galicia the true birthplace of Halloween?
People in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia have been celebrating O Samaín - the precursor of Halloween - for millenia. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

Halloween may be known primarily as an American celebration, but could the Spanish region of Galicia be the place where the spooky festivity was born?

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The northwestern region is famous for its rich Gaelic folklore and ghost legends, and Halloween, known there as O Samaín.

It's a big deal in Galicia, in fact, some argue that it was invented there.

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Gallegos have celebrated O Samaín for centuries, an ancient autumn festival, which was a precursor to America's Halloween.

O Samaín derives from the Gaelic word Samhain, meaning 'end of summer' and commemorates the change of season and the arrival of winter.

It also celebrates the end of the harvest and the last day of the year, according to the Celtic calendar, which is October 31st.

READ ALSO: Five reasons why Galicia is Spain’s version of Ireland

In Galicia, this is also known as the ‘Noite dos Calacús ’ or the ‘night of the pumpkins’.

It is said that when the light changes from summer to winter, for a single night, the doors of the afterlife remain open and are used by the souls of the deceased to visit the world of the living, similar to the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.  

During this night it was customary for the druids - high-ranking officials and religious leaders - to go from house to house asking for food to honour the souls of the spirits who visited during that night, perhaps a tradition which gave way to modern-day trick or treating.  

READ ALSO: This is how Spain celebrates Halloween (a festival invented in Galicia)

During this night it wasn’t only the good spirits of family members that passed over, evil ones did too. To protect themselves the locals would carve pumpkins with scary faces and light a candle inside. Some would also dress up in animal skins and masks, to scare the spirits away.

In Galician villages, people celebrated this way for centuries but it became less common with the rise of Christianity.

In recent times, however, the tradition of O Samaín has been revived and in villages such as Cedeira, O Vicedo and Narón it is now celebrated in a big way. Today it may involve pumpkin carving, costume parties, bonfires, and rituals.

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So is Halloween originally from Spain's Galicia region?

The Celts are said to have arrived in northern Spain between 950 and 650 BC, settling around the Sil river in Galicia. 

This explains why the O Samaín festival is as deeply entrenched in the region's folklore as it in Ireland, Scotland, Wales or the Isle of Man. 

There is of course no way of knowing if Halloween was truly born in Galicia or in one of the other Celtic nations.

What does seem more likely is that it was America's population of Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought the tradition over in the 19th century, something which led to its expansion among other population groups in the US and its eventual global commercialisation and transformation into the Halloween we all know today. 

A mural depicting A Santa Compaña in Pontevedra, Galicia. Photo: Lameiro/Wikipedia

 

The legend of Santa Compaña

This procession of spirits gave rise to the legend of Santa Compaña, known throughout Galicia, Asturias and northern Portugal.

Closely associated with the Camino de Santiago, it is said that some pilgrims would see the appearance of a row of ghostly hooded men who arrived to warn about impending death, like the ghosts of Christmas future. 

Queimada 

Look out for queimada – a  hot punch made from orujo mixed with sugar, lemon peel and coffee beans. It is brewed in a special clay pot and stirred with a ladle, while witches' incantations banishing evil are chanted over it, as it burns with a blue flame.

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Anonymous 2022/10/31 18:20
Hi, this sounds quite likely because of the Celtic past of Galacia. However, I am informed that it is actually in Ireland that the Halloween custom website is first recorded and from there, when the Irish emigrated to America (because of the Famine in 1846 to '49), The Americans took it to where it is today. But your account of what it means is exactly the same as the Halloween festival in Ireland. Samnach is the Gaels word for autumn and the tradition of dressing up as ghouls and skeletons, fairies etc. was to blend in with the spirits that roamed free on Oct 31so that the people wouldn't be taken away by the spirits. It can be traced back to Co. Meath in Ireland and was a pagan ceremony. So, yes, a Celtic tradition that started in Ireland

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