Why do we associate Samhain/Halloween with fire? With orange and black?
Our ancestors didn't worship fire, but there's no denying the incredible importance of it. Fire was life; it was heat and light. Without it there was only darkness.
So it makes sense that fire would be a very important part of all celebrations, particularly the two most important one. Beltaine, May 1st, and Samhain, Nov. 1st (note: The feasts were celebrated on the eves of these dates, thus giving us April 30 and October 31).
As I mentioned in my previous post, these dates were considered the points where the wheel of the year turned; from spring to summer, and from fall to winter. On these nights danger lived; when time turns it creates a thinning of the veil (there's a reason why midnight is called "the witching hour"), and through tha veil all sorts of things can slip. Is it possible that the reason those festivals were celebrated with bonfires was in an attempt to use light to drive away the forces of darkness? In some parts of Scotland this was spelled out pretty clearly; boys went from house to house collecting peat to use as fuel for the fires, with the words "Give us peat to burn the witches." (It was recorded in 1845, on the Isle of Man, that the "Sauin" fires had been lit "till a late period, to fend off the faeries and witches.") In some places villagers set fire to brooms and ran around the outside of their homes or the two with them, then threw them in a heap to make their bonfires.
Fire rituals and superstitions on those nights are well-documented. Sir James Frazer tells in the indespensible The Golden Bough of such rituals; every house with its own bonfire, each village with one in addition. Imagine in the darkness of the night, while the cold wind blows, the brilliance of dozens of fires like jewels against the black sky.
But the fires weren't just for light and heat. They had other uses as well. After collecting their peats and building their fire, the boys used to lie on the ground, as close to the fire as they dared, and let the protective smoke roll over them.
The fires were also used for divination, a traditional Samhain activity--for Samhain is the Celtic New Year, and what better time to look into the future and past?
Fire divination was a serious thing, and a scary one. Each family in the vllage would toss a stone, marked with their names or other identifying characteristic, into the flames. In the morning, if a stone was missing, it was understood that the Fae had taken it; death would touch the family by the next Samhain. This form of divination was widespread; examples of it seem to exist everywhere across Europe.
In some parts of Wales, the village men would watch the fire all night, waiting for it to burn down; when the last spark extinguished itself they would run as fast as they could away, shouting, "The cropped [tail-less] black sow seize the hindmost!"--an early and much more terrifying version of "Last one in is a rotten egg!", it seems.
And it is still a traditional night for divination, and it is still, in some ways, a traditional night for bonfires. Although very few villages actually do Samhain bonfires--and Bonfire Night, November 5th, is something of a carryover, yes--if you walk through any neighborhood on Halloween you will see candles. Candles placed in Jack o' Lanterns on porches, their fearsome faces glowing and glowering to protect the people inside. Candles in windows. Even flashlights in the hands of children, little sparks through the night.
So tonight, as you prepare to hand out candy and appease the little ghouls and goblins, think for a moment about the history of the holiday you're celebrating. Stand outside and close your eyes, and listen for the sound of the Wild Hunt over head. Samhain has its own energy, exhilarating and scary and free. Let yourself feel it; you'll be glad you did.
And don't forget to leave out a little milk or honey for the faeries. Just in case.