The History of Halloween

From the Celtic festival of Samhain to the modern day

Halloween is one of America’s most popular holidays. However, it is not all fancy dress and candy…

To the countries who observe this autumnal celebration, Halloween represents a time of superstition and the paranormal as the nights grow darker and Winter closes in. Increasingly, it seems that the ghoulish holiday is also a time for sugar-coated abundance, with one quarter of America’s annual candy sales occurring around Halloween 1. However, it has not always been this way. So, where did this peculiar festival originate?

Although the word Halloween is a contraction of the Christian observance of All Hallow’s Eve (hallowed meaning holy), it is widely believed that many of the traditions associated with Halloween can be traced back to ancient festivals. In particular, it is the 2,000 year-old pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win).

The Ancient Origins of Halloween: Samhain

The night of the 31st October, Samhain, marked the start of the Celtic year: the end of summer and the harvest season, and the beginning of darkness and the cold. Indeed, the word Samhain comes from the Old Irish for ‘summer’s end’. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

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As well as serving a protective purpose, the bonfires were also used to burn offerings of crops and cattle.

An important part of the celebrations was the lighting of special bonfires. As Samhain was regarded as a time of year when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest, the bonfires were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers.

Due to the proximity of the Otherworld, the Celts believed that the souls of dead family members revisited their homes on Samhain. As such, lavish hospitality was provided: places at feast tables were set for them, and offerings of food were left. Nuts and apples were popular. The prevalence of these foodstuffs can still be seen today in the same traditions of apple-bobbing and the roasting of nuts.

A mystical race comparable to fairies or elves, known as Aos Sí, were also thought to walk, more actively than usual, amongst the living on Samhain. This meant that guising (namely the tradition of dressing up in costume) was practised because of its effectiveness at disguising oneself from the occasionally fearsome Aos Sí. Scottish folklorist F. Marian McNeill has suggested that ashes taken from the sacred bonfire may have been used to blacken participants’ faces2.

Samhain was also important for the practice of divination. The presence of otherworldly entities, such as the Aos Sí, were thought to make it easier to predict the future. At a time of looming darkness and cold, a favourable prophecy would provide unrivaled comfort to a superstitious culture.

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Druids and Celtic priests believed that this time of year was one of the best for the prediction of fortunes and the future.

The Roman Evolution of Samhain

By the time the Romans left the British Isles in the 5th century A.D., the traditions of Samhain had evolved.

Most notable are the Roman festivals of Parentalia and Pomona. Both would have a lasting impact on the legacy of modern-day Halloween.

The former, Parentalia, was a nine-day religious holiday held in honour of family ancestors. Although celebrated in mid-February (commencing the 13th), Parentalia observed the ties between the living and the dead in a similar manner to Samhain. In particular it is the last day of the festival, Feralia, which historians cite as the most important in the history of Halloween. The midnight rites which were performed in commemoration of the dead were believed to exorcise and cleanse. According to Ovid, Roman citizens were instructed to bring sacrificia to the tombs of their dead which consisted of at least ‘an arrangement of wreaths, a sprinkling of grain and a bit of salt, bread soaked in wine and violets scattered about.’3

The second of the festivals honoured the Roman goddess of fruitful abundance, Pomona. It is her association with orchard fruit which may help to explain the continued importance of apples (apple-bobbing and toffee apples) in modern Halloween celebrations.

pomona-by-nicolas-fouche-c-1700
Pomona, by Nicholas Fouche, c. 1700

The Christianisation of Samhain

The widespread observance of Halloween in modern, Western cultures is largely due to the Christianisation of Samhain by the Church in the 7th century.

On 13th May, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and thus the Catholic feast of All Martyrs’ Day was established in the Western church. During the pontificate of Gregory III (731-741), the festival was expanded to include all saints as well as all martyrs. All Saints’ Day, as it was now known, was also referred to as All Hallows’ Day, in reference to the holiness of the faithful department, namely all saints known and unknown. It was in 835 that All Hallows’ Day was officially moved to 1st November, at the behest of Pope Gregory IV. As with many other major early Christian festivals (including Easter and Christmas), a vigil would be held the night prior to All Hallows’ Day. Thus, All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween, now fell on the same day as Samhain, between dusk and dawn the 31st October to 1st November.

Many historians agree that the Church was attempting to replace the widely popular Celtic festival of the dead with a similar, church-sanctioned holiday. By the 9th century, the merger can be said to have been a success, as the influence of Christianity spread into Celtic lands, blending with and supplanting older, Celtic traditions.

 

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The Christian feast of All Hallows’ can be traced to Pope Gregory III’s founding of an oratory in St Peter’s for the relics ‘of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors’.

This excerpt from a book by a Christian minister, Prince Sorie Conteh, reveals how the Celtic custom of wearing costumes remained relevant to Christian belief:

‘It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. In order to avoid being recognized by any soul that might be seeking such vengeance, people would don masks or costumes to disguise their identities.’4

The Samhain tradition lighting of bonfires also lived on in medieval Christendom. Across medieval Europe, ‘soul lights’ were lit to guide the souls of the dead as they passed on, and to deflect any vengeful amongst them from haunting the households of honest Christian folk.

Similar was the offering of food to departed family members. A practice that continues to this day in Spain is the leaving of special pastries, known as Huesos de Santo (‘bones of the holy’), on the graves of loved ones.

Halloween in the Modern Day

It was not until the influx of Catholic migrants (in particular Irish) of the 19th century that All Hallows’ Day and Halloween was celebrated nationally in America. Prior to that, rigid Protestant belief systems had limited its observance in areas such as New England.

As Halloween spread across the United States, a distinctively American version of the holiday began to flourish. Once more Halloween’s Celtic roots were visible, this time in the belief amongst young women that they could divine the name, or even appearance, of their future husband by doing tricks with mirrors.

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A Halloween greeting card from 1904 depicts a young woman looking into a mirror in the hopes of divining her future husband.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween was far less religious-centric. Community gatherings and child-friendly activities were prioritised over the remembrance of saints. Nowadays, Halloween is one of the major holidays in America, and is celebrated across the Western world.

Although it looks very different from its Samhain roots, many Celtic traditions including dressing up; the association with death; superstition; and the importance of food and feasting, still remain important aspects of modern-day Halloween.

About Laura 15 Articles
Falling more strongly on the side of scepticism, Laura's passion is for the details. Much of the website's footnoting is the result of her fact-checking. Laura is fascinated by the culture implications and the psychology of strange phenomena. Besides being the voice of The Paranormal Scholar, she also enjoys researching historical topics, especially Medieval and Renaissance periods.