The origin of Halloween traces back to sacred Gaelic celebrations called Samhain (SAH-win) originally from Ireland. Although we associate the tradition with Irish Celts, there is evidence that the Neolithic people of Ireland may have observed a similar festival that fell at the same time of year – November 1. Samhain may have been the most important holiday of the year, marking the need to pay veneration to the gods and ancestors before a long winter of cold darkness and hardship. How did this ancient tradition morph from a religious Pagan festival into today’s Halloween?
What Was Samhain About?
Since Neolithic times, people of ancient Ireland kept track of the movement of the Sun and the Moon. They were very much in tune with nature, as they depended on the celestial bodies to tell them when to plow the fields, when to sow the seeds, when to harvest, and when to prepare for the hard winter. Almost every aspect of their lives depended on the time of year and every aspect of nature contained gods and spirits.
Celts of the British Isles celebrated four major holidays during the year, and each one involved different activities and religious rites. These were the Fire Festivals of Imbolc (Feb. 2), Beltane (May 1), Lughnasadh (Aug. 1), and Samhain (Nov. 1). Each marks the point between the Solstices and Equinoxes.
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Between sunset on October 31 until sunrise on November 1, the Celts believed that the veil between our existence and the spirit world was the thinnest. Thus, the festival carried an intense supernatural and religious meaning for a society that felt a deep reverence and duty to its gods and ancestors who paved the way for their own existence.
When Did Samhain Observances begin?
The origin of Halloween may go back much further than we once thought. The Mound of the Hostages in Ireland was an ancient passage tomb built between 3000 BCE-2500 BCE. It was a place where the Neolithic people of Ireland buried the ashes and bones of their dead. They specifically designed it so that on only two days each year, the sun would shine into the structure to light up the passageway. One of those days was February 1, the festival of Imbolc, and the second was November 1 – the day of Samhain.
Central Europe’s Celtic group arrived in the British Isles around 500 BCE. Those of Ireland and Scotland celebrated Samhain, but there were also observances to a lesser extent in England and Wales and, later, parts of the continent. In fact, the word Samhain is the modern version of the old Irish word for November 1, on which the Celtic new year started.
What Was the Purpose of Samhain?
The November 1st celebration had four main purposes:
- Appease the gods. Winters were harsh in the north and the Celts believed that what happened in nature and to them had everything to do with how happy or displeased the gods were. If they showed the gods thanks and veneration in the form of various types of sacrifices, perhaps the gods would spare them and their animals from a deadly winter.
- Honor the dead. As the door to the otherworld opened up on October 31, spirits could move between our world and the otherworld freely. Therefore, it was important to appease the dead. Celts remembered and honored ancestors who had come before them. They told the stories of those who died, and within the narratives, some of those ancestors became gods or heroes who could bless or curse the living.
- Help the souls of recently deceased individuals transition to the other side. The journey to the otherworld could be difficult or a spirit may roam the land of the living. However, during Samhain, the living could guide the dead to the afterlife.
- Consult beings of the otherworld. The spirits that came into the world of the living from the other side could be useful. They had knowledge of things to come and knew things that humans couldn’t know. Druids would communicate with the spirits to get information to aid their divinations about health, marriage, death, love, and the future.
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 folk stories.
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Feasting and games were important. In order to keep hungry ghosts and faeries from entering their homes, the Celts also placed food offerings in front of their doorways. Hosts set places at the table for deceased loved ones in preparation of their visitations. When families took care of the spirits, the spirits 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.
How the Romans Influenced Samhain
Although the Roman Empire never conquered Ireland, beginning in 43 CE they did capture England, Wales, and a small part of Scotland for a short time. Their rule in Britain lasted about 400 years and fostered an intense sharing of ideas. Some experts argue that in Ireland, the changes to Samhain did not occur until Christianity made its way to the island in the early fifth century.
Romans may have had some direct 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. This eventually led to the game of “Apple Bobbing.” Interestingly, druids may have 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 Halloween.
The Feralia was another Roman festival that had an influence on the history of Halloween and its predecessor, Samhain. The Romans celebrated on February 21 – the last day of a nine-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.
Thus, Samhain took on many multi-cultural influences.
The Transition from Samhain to Halloween
With Pagan roots, Samhain ran contrary to Catholic beliefs. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church replaced it with their own sanctioned celebrations. This led to the conversion of Feralia and possibly another Roman festival, Lemuria (May 13), into All Martyrs’ Day.
On May 13, 609 CE (or 610), Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon – originally a Pagan temple – to Saint Mary and all martyrs. In 837 CE Pope Gregory III changed the date of All Martyrs’ Day to November 1 to replace Samhain. He also added all saints to the martyrs. 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 Catholic 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, today, is synonymous with Halloween. This custom may also have its roots in Pagan customs. The Celts prepared 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 speculate that a Druid practice of begging for materials for the community bonfire may have been influential to trick-or-treating. Scholars also suggest that the villagers 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.
America’s Halloween is a blend of the cultures that formed the country. Initially, celebrations in the New World were mostly harvest festivals based on giving thanks to God. This is because conservative Puritans shunned anything that took on Pagan aspects. In the latter part of the 19th century, the Irish poured into the country in response to the potato famine and they brought with them their own culture and celebrations that would eventually become the Halloween we share today.
The origin of Halloween may go back 5,000 years. In essence, early observances were meant to maintain a harmonious relationship with the gods of nature and ancestors of the spirit world. Today, Halloween is a $6 billion industry between candy and costume sales. Countries all over the world take part in the fun celebrations. However, thanks to modern Neopagans, there is a resurgence of observances that maintain the true meaning of the holiday.
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Article updated Aug. 28, 2019.