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  • Writer's picturelaura zibalese

How did Halloween Begin?

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

Halloween Origins

Halloween is almost here, so I thought it would be fun to take a look at the origins of a holiday I have always found to be so much fun.

Halloween brings a bit of the ancient back into our modern lives.

The history of Halloween is one of mystery and intrigue that has been passed down through the generations. Traditions and adaptations of ancient ceremonies and superstitions have evolved into the holiday we know and love today. Let’s now explore the history of Halloween in its various forms, and unlock the secrets of this ancient holiday.

Halloween is a holiday celebrated on the night of October 31. The word Halloween is a shortening of All Hallows’ Evening also known as Hallowe’en or All Hallows’ Eve.

Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain. (pronounced “sah-win”) The festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture. It was a time used by the ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and prepare for winter. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped, and the deceased would come back to life and cause all kinds of havoc such as sickness or damaged crops.

Samhain's History:

Samhain dates back to the ancient Celts who lived around 500 BC. Contrary to what some believe, it is not a celebration of a Celtic god of the dead. Instead, it is a Celtic word meaning "summer's end." The Celts believed that summer came to an end on October 31st and the New Year began on November 1st with the start of winter. But the Celts also followed a lunar calendar so their celebrations began at sunset the night before.

Many today see Halloween as a pagan holiday but that's not really accurate. Halloween is actually a Christian creation. The pagan began their celebrations at sunset on October 31st, on Samhain Eve. On the day of October 31st, the fires within the home were extinguished. Often families would engage in a good "fall" cleaning, to clear out the old and make way for the new, starting the winter months with fresh and clean household items.

The festival would frequently involve bonfires.

Samhaim bonfires

At sunset on October 31, clans and local villages began the formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire.

The people would gather around the fire to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a method of giving the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous year’s herd or crops. (Much as Kane and Able gave of their crops and herds to Jehovah.) In addition, these sacred fires were a big part of the cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming New Year.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death and the Wheel of Life. Masks and costumes were worn in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or to appease them.

These costumes were worn for three primary reasons:

Halloween's Samhaim Celtic origins.

The first was to honor the dead who were allowed to rise from the "Otherworld." The Celts believed that souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. The wearing of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world.

Not all of these souls were honored and respected, however. Some, it was feared, would return to the physical world and destroy crops, hide livestock or 'haunt' any of the living who may have done them wrong.

The second reason for these traditional costumes was to hide from these malevolent spirits to escape their trickery.

The final representation was a method to honor the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields, and flocks giving thanks and homage to those deities who assisted the village or clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year. And to ask for their favor during the coming year and the harsh winter months ahead.

The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays goes back to the Middle Ages and includes Christmas wassailing. Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of “souling,” when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2)

Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (1593), when Speed accuses his master of “puling [whimpering, whining], like a beggar at Hallowmas.”

In addition to celebrations and dance, it was believed that this thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld provided extra energy for communications between the living and the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic Shamans would attempt to tell the fortunes of individuals through a variety of methods. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter months.

Samhain Bonfires embers.

These psychic readings would be conducted with a variety of divination tools. Such as throwing bones, or casting the Celtic Ogham. There are stories of reading tea leaves, rocks and twigs, and even simple spirit communications that today we'd call Channeling.

When the community celebration was over, each family would take a torch or burning ember from the sacred bonfire and return to their own home. The home fires that had been extinguished during the day were re-lit by the flame of the sacred bonfire to help protect the dwelling and its inhabitants during the coming winter. These fires were kept burning night and day during the next several months. It was believed that if a home lost its fire, tragedy and troubles would soon follow.

With the hearth fires lit, the families would place food and drink outside their doors. This was done to appease the roaming spirits who might play tricks on the family.

The Romans began to conquer the Celtic territories and by A.D. 43 they had succeeded in claiming the majority of the Celtic lands. They ruled for approximately four hundred years combining or influencing many Celtic traditional celebrations with their own. Two Roman holidays were merged with Samhain.
  1. Feralia is a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead.

  2. Pomona's Day of Honoring the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.

The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that are practiced today on Halloween.

From Samhain to Halloween:

With the coming of Christianity in the 800s AD, the early Church in England tried to Christianize the old Celtic festivals. Pope Boniface IV designated the 1st of November as "All Saints Day," honoring saints and martyrs. He also decreed October 31 as "All Hallows Eve,” which eventually became Halloween.

Christians and pagans both celebrated halloween.

Scholars today widely accept that the Pope was attempting to replace the earlier Celtic pagan festival with a church-sanctioned holiday. As this Christian holiday spread, the name evolved as well, it is also called All-hallows Eve or All-Hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day).

200 years later, in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It is celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints? All Hallows', and All Souls ‘ Day, are called Hallowmas.

Today most call it Halloween!

In the end, this shows that the holiness of a holiday depends not on the day it lands on or its traditions, but on the spiritual importance the person celebrating places on it. What was holy pagan, became holy Christian, became Secular fun!

Most people today do not celebrate the religious or spiritual aspects of Halloween, but isn’t it nice to remember holiday traditions that go back thousands of years and preserve our ancient heritage?

And maybe, just maybe, there is a bit of truth there and on this one special night of the year the spirits of those who have gone before us may come to visit those of us willing to accept and perceive their presence.

The vail has thinned.

Thank you for reading -

Happy Halloween! or as the Ancients would say Happy Samhain!

Don't forget to set out goodies for the visiting spirits!

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