Halloween: Thank the Celts

The holiday we all know as Halloween (or Hallowe’en to some) is often thought of as one dedicated to children. Some folks I’ve encountered over the years even thought it was started in the early 20th century by candy companies as an excuse to sell more product! That said, nothing is further from the truth. Halloween is an extremely old holiday that originated with the Celtic/Gaelic races in Ireland, France, and England several thousand years ago, when it was known as Samhain (pronounced “sah-ween”).

When it first originated, Samhain was (more or less) the Celtic “New Year” but it was much more than that. It marked the time when final harvests were brought in and cattle were driven from summer pastures to winter quarters. It also involved huge bonfires that were part of an annual cleansing ritual for both people and animals. While we’re not completely sure of all the events surrounding the holiday, it appears the Celts also extinguished their home fires at this time, re-lighting them from embers carried home from the communal bonfires. This may have been a ritual designed to bond the community more closely together for the coming winter. Or maybe everyone cleaned their chimneys at this point, and needed an excuse to put the fire out temporarily. We’ll probably never know for sure.


Samhain was also thought of as one of the times when the “door to the afterlife” or “other world” was open, and the souls of those who died during the previous year made their way to whatever fate awaited them there. Our modern Halloween ritual of going from door to door asking for treats probably comes from the Celtic practice of offering feasts for the departing dead. It was also probably the case that performers or local residents went from door to door, mimicking the spirits and receiving treats of some type. Those who refused might have been tormented by the “spirits”, thus giving rise to the practice of soaping windows and other light pranks in the modern era.

Since the “doors” were thought to be open, this was also considered an auspicious time for divination practices. One old rhyme says that young girls would throw a ball of yarn into a suitable location, like a cellar or old house thought to represent a threshold or liminal space, then wind it up while repeating a rhyme intended to disclose the name of the true love they would later marry. Whether this exact rhyme dates back to Celtic times is debatable, but it’s an interesting example of the sort of thing that might be attempted at this time of year.

Page 318 of The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 5, No. 19, Oct. - Dec., 1892

Divination Folklore Example

For that matter, the tradition of the Jack ‘O Lantern probably derives from the legend of a man known as “Stingy Jack,” who managed to trick the Devil on several occasions and in doing so managed to keep his soul as his own. When he died, he was refused admission to heaven and the Devil also told him to bugger off, having agreed earlier never to take his soul. However, the Devil took pity on Jack and gave him an ember, which he subsequently carried in a gourd (think “pumpkin”) he happened to be eating at the time of his death, to light his way through eternity.

Roman Holiday

One general truism of history is that it’s easier to get a conquered population to adopt a conqueror’s religious practices by “overlaying” new religious holidays onto those that already exist. This is often intentional, but it’s also true (as some students of mythology have suggested) that certain patterns of holiday celebration are common across cultures. For example, many cultures have Spring and Autumn celebrations and others celebrate New Year around the time the sun starts noticeably spending more time in the sky. Some events just naturally fall on similar dates that align with seasonal changes. In any case, the Romans had holidays of their own that fell on roughly the same date as Samhain. The first, Feralia, was the Roman day honoring the dead (what an amazing coincidence!). The second was for Pomona, the Roman goddess of trees and fruit. Pomona’s symbol was the apple — think of the French word pommes, meaning apple — which may (or may not) explain the practice of bobbing for apples on Halloween.


Pomona and Her Apples

The Christians Take Over

Keeping with the custom of overlaying holidays in order to get a subject population to accept a new religion, Christianity decided to pull a fast one by moving All Saint’s Day, which was originally celebrated in May, to November 1st. This happened as early as the first party of the 8th century in the British Isles, but the move wasn’t made official until 835CE. Another Christian holiday, albeit one generally only celebrated by the Catholic church, was All Souls’ Day which occurs usually on 2 November. Both are (yes, you guessed it) festivals honoring those who died during the previous year, and are intended to send them speedily to their eternal reward.

So How Did We Get Halloween?

Derivation of the name is pretty obvious when the final piece of the puzzle becomes known. As one history of Halloween notes, “All Saints Day was also known as All Hallows, or All Hallowmas (Hallowmas is Old English for All Saints Day). Since Samhain was celebrated the night before November 1, the celebration was known as All Hallows Eve, and later called Halloween.” This also explains the “Hallowe’en” spelling, since “even” or “e’en” are contractions for “evening.” “Hallows Even” can easily become one word with a dropped “v” when said quickly.

All Hallows and other holidays were abolished under Protestant law, which abandoned the idea of saints altogether. It wasn’t until much later that the holiday formerly known as All Hallows morphed into what we now know as Halloween, complete with costumes,¬†decorations and increasingly macabre displays, not to mention a sales bonanza for stores that sell appropriate paraphernalia during the season. What was a religious holiday became a secular one, and also diverged into related holidays like The Day of the Dead, which is celebrated mainly in Latin American countries.

But what about all the stuff with black cats, witches, and other creepy creatures? That all came in later, probably over hundreds of years, as bits of folklore were added to the story. The story of how witches came to be so reviled in Christian tradition is a tale for another day, and in Medieval times cats were commonly thought to be agents of the Devil (and companions of witches…), which led to numerous cat killing sprees that may have contributed to the spread of the black plague…but that’s yet another tale for the future.

So if you want to be an authentic Halloween creature, pick a skeleton or corpse. All those vampires, witches, and werewolves are Johnny Come Lately characters that weren’t part of Samhain, or even the early Roman and Christian versions of the holiday. That’s so gauche…

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