Origin of Halloween and History of Samhain

The history of Halloween is rooted in a celebration from ancient Ireland that may be as old as 5,000 years. Although today we know of Halloween as a trick-or-treating holiday where we dress up in costumes and go from house to house asking for candies, the tradition started out as something very different. The origin of Halloween is based in the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain. But throughout history the expression of the holiday has changed, acquiring new customs from various places.

origin of halloween

The origin of Halloween stems from the Celtic Samhain holiday on Oct. 31. Community bonfires warded off spirits. Photo credit: Can Stock

Celtic History of Samhain

The Celts were a group of people that once lived around most of Europe, north of the Mediterranean. However, it appears that Samhain was most widely observed in Ireland and Scotland, and to a lesser extent in England and Wales. Since Neolithic times, there is evidence that Celts celebrated four major holidays during the year. Samhain, pronounced sah-ween, was perhaps the most important one. The word Samhain is the modern version of the old Irish word for November 1 (and the celebrations that would take place), Samain. The Celtic new year started on November 1. This day marked the end of the harvest season and the transition into the long winter, which was a time of darkness and hardship.

The oldest proof of Samhain celebrations may come from the “Mound of the Hostages,” an ancient passage tomb where the Celts buried the ashes of their dead. They built the mound between 3000 and 2500 BC, and they specifically designed it so that on only two days each year the sun would shine into the structure to light up the passageway. Those two days were on February 1, called Imbolc, and November 1, called Samhain.

Origin of Halloween

Possible evidence for the origin of Halloween at Mound of Hostages, Ireland. Wikimedia Commons, Poleary91

What Was the Purpose of Samhain?

Samhain celebrations began on October 31. The purpose of the celebration was to ensure the appeasement of the gods in order to stay safe during the upcoming hard winter, to honor the dead, and to help the souls of recently deceased villagers transition to the other side. The Celts believed that the door to the otherworld opened up on October 31, allowing spirits to move in and out freely. Some scholars suggest that Celtic gods also traveled between worlds. However, fearful things could also cross over to the world of the living to visit their homes and move about the living. The spirits that came over from the other side could also be useful. Druids (Celtic soothsayers and priests) made divinations about health, marriage, death and love because they could talk to the spirits to get information.

How Did Celts Celebrate it?

The Celts celebrated Samhain by lighting large bonfires where the community gathered together. The fire helped their dead find their way to the other side. It also protected humans from otherworldly beings and the smoke was considered to be very cleansing. At these gatherings, animals and foods were sacrificed to keep destructive forces at bay and protect the herds and people throughout winter. The Druids foretold the future and recited Celtic folk stories.

Feasting and game playing were typical, and according to some Irish stories, attendees often imbibed generously in alcoholic beverages. In order to keep hungry ghosts and faeries from entering their homes, the Celts also placed food offerings in front of their doorways. In some places, hosts set places at the table for deceased loved ones, because when the loved ones arrived they could grant blessings upon the family to help them survive the winter. The villagers also dressed up in masks to disguise themselves as ghosts when they went out because they believed spirits were attracted to the living.

Roman Influences on the Origin of Halloween

Although the Roman Empire never conquered Ireland, they did capture Britain, Wales, and part of Scotland for a time. Some experts argue that in Ireland, the changes to Samhain did not occur until Christianity made its way to Ireland in the early 5th century. However, according to the Wikipedia article, “Apple Bobbing,” Romans may have had some influence on Celtic Samhain in the conquered lands by introducing apple trees. The apple tree was symbolic of the goddess of fruit trees, Pomona. Cutting into an apple reveals a shape similar to a pentagram, which gave the apple a magical quality. Pagans used it as a form of divination in a variety of ways. For example, if a girl successfully bobbed an apple, she would marry over the next year. The apple bobbing became a permanent part of the history of Halloween.

Origin of Halloween

Snap Apple Night, a Halloween celebration in County Kerry, Ireland, 1833. Lower right: children bob for apples.

The Feralia appears to be another Roman festival that had an influence on the history of Halloween. The Romans celebrated it on February 21 on the last day of a 9-day festival called Parentalia. This festival was also in honor of their deceased. Romans families celebrated Parentalia (parenti means relatives in Italian) mostly in private. It involved offerings of foods and wines to the family’s ancestors, heroes, and loved ones. On Feralia, the celebration became more public, where the Romans would make sacrifices to the dead. Camilla Laurentine summarizes nicely in her story, “Feralia and the Unclaimed Dead”:

The Feralia was a public sacrifice for the Manes held at midnight on February 21st, the final day of the Parentalia. We have no surviving description of what the public rites entail, though if we take Ovid’s account in his poem, Fasti, it likely had magical undertones that one did not find in many Roman festivals.

So, although Samhain is primarily Irish, the origin of Halloween does have some multi-cultural influences.

The Transition from Samhain to Halloween

The origin of Halloween had pagan and polytheistic roots. Because this was contrary to Christian beliefs, many historians believe that the Roman Catholic Church wanted to weed out pagan festivals. So they replaced them with their own sanctioned celebrations. Therefore, the Church transformed Feralia and possibly another Roman festival, Lemuria (May 13), into All Martyrs’ Day. It started on May 13, 609 (or 610), when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the pagan temple, The Pantheon, to Saint Mary and all martyrs. In 837 AD Pope Gregory III changed the date of All Martyrs’ Day to November 1 to replace Samhain. He also included all saints into the holiday. In ancient usage, the word “hallow” also meant a saint or holy person. Thus, All Saints’ Day took on other names: All Hallows, Feast of All Saints, and Hallowmas.

The day before All Saints’ Day was known as All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve. Samhain, sah-ween, was blended with the Christian holiday and became Halloween, the contraction of All Hallows’ Evening.

Halloween Traditions That Have Celtic Roots

The history of Halloween contains many traditions, but perhaps the most important one that survived is costume wearing. Celtic villagers wore masks to hide from ghosts. And the Celtic Druids wore animal skins and heads while performing ceremonies at Samhain. This was so they could absorb the power of the animal.

Another tradition is trick-or-treating, which in general, is synonymous with Halloween. It may have its roots in pagan customs. Villagers would prepare lush banquets to greet the spirits as the spirits roamed from home to home. As the night came to a close, costumed villagers led the ghosts away in a parade to the edge town. Some say that a Druid practice of begging for materials for the community bonfire may have been influential to trick-or-treating. Scholars have also postulated that the Celts dressed up pretending to be spirits of winter who would offer a blessing in return for an offering.

Later, as Halloween spread during the 18th and 19th centuries in the British Isles, activities such as mumming, souling and guising became important parts of the tradition. Each of these involved going from home to home and asking for treats or money in exchange for blessings or the performance of a “party” trick. The trick could be something like the recitation of a poem or the singing of a song.

Modern Halloween

Origin of Halloween

Ghoulish modern Halloween decorations. Flickr.com, Randy Robertson.

The origin of Halloween in the form of Samhain embodied a deep respect. This was a reverence and fear for nature and the harsh upcoming winter. The celebration honored the gods and provided sacrifices and offerings to encourage the gods to protect their families during the winter. The tradition reflected the Celtic values of maintaining a harmonious relationship with Mother Earth and her spirits, and of honoring their dead.

Today, Halloween is a $6 billion industry between candy and costume sales. Countries all over the world have taken part in the celebration of the holiday mostly for the fun of it. And although Halloween has lost most of its original meaning and depth, it remains one of the most popular holidays of all time.

Other Related Articles:

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The Legend of Stingy Jack


Ancient History Encyclopedia
Camilla Laurentine

Article updated 10/4/16

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Jim Harper

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