The Celtic Origins of Halloween

The Customs and Traditions of Samhain

How many people actually know the origins of our major holidays? 

Most of our holidays such as Christmas, Easter and especially Halloween are deeply rooted in Celtic pagan rites and rituals.

Most of the traditions of Halloween, Samhain (pronounced Sow-een) or All Hallow’s Eve came from the ancient Celts. Samhain actually translates to “summers end.” This popular celebration started on the eve of the holiday at sundown. The eve of the holiday was much more important than the holiday itself. This was actually the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new year in Celtic tradition. The Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans also celebrated this night as the festival of the dead.

This was the Celtic New Year’s Eve. It was the beginning of the dark phase of the year. The year of the Celts ran from May 1, which was called Beltane to Samhain, the light phase of the year, and from Samhain to Beltane, the dark phase of the year. The main themes of Samhain are about celebrating the dead and divining the future. The Celts believed that the veil between the dead and living was the thinnest at this time of the year.

It was believed that the dead could return to the land of the living for this one night to celebrate with friends, family and tribes or clans. The burial mounds of Ireland (Sidhe mounds) were opened on this night and lighted torches lined their walls, so the dead could find their way back to the world of the living. The table was set with extra places and food set out on the doorsteps for any who had died that year.

The Celts sense of time was quite different than the linear view held today. While modern day thought sees time as a straight line, the Celts saw it as cyclical. Basically, on this night, they saw the universe dissolving back into primordial chaos before re-establishing itself back into a new order. To them Samhain was a night that existed outside of time and hence could be used to view any other point in time. In essence, divination worked much better on this night than on any other night of the year.

As time went on, many different customs were added to the Samhain traditions, including the Jack-o-Lantern. It is thought that this carved pumpkin custom originated in either Scotland or Ireland. This scary faced effigy was used as a lantern by people who traveled the roads on this night of the dead. It’s scary face was used to frighten away spirits or fairy folk who might otherwise lead one astray. Placed on porches or in windows they cast the same spell of protection over the household.

The custom of dressing in costume and trick or treating, is of Celtic origin with origins particularly strong in Scotland. However, this custom was not just assigned to children, but adults as well. And, the treat was not candy but “spirits of alcohol.” It was also traditional to go from house to house singing carols, similar to wassailing at Yule. Caroling was actually often practiced at all the major holidays.

Samhain was also the last harvest festival of the year with the harvesting of the last of the produce. Pumpkins, gourds, and root plants were brought in and preserved for the winter ahead. Many of the clans would now begin their journey from their summer hunting lodges to their winter longhouses.

And of course, the Christian church could not seem to squash the pagan traditions of this night. So, like many other holidays they tacked on All Saint’s Day, which was a day to honor the Christian Saints.

"Halloween. Sly does it. Tiptoe catspaw. Slide and creep. But why? What for? How? Who? When! Where did it all begin? 'You don't know, do you?' asks Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud climbing out under the pile of leaves under the Halloween Tree. 'You don't REALLY know!'"

Ray Bradbury from 'The Halloween Tree'

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Linda Paul
Linda Paul

I retired a couple of years ago and my dog and cat strongly suggested that I find something creative to do with all my spare time. I have always been a workaholic, and my furry friends were right. I love writing, so, here I am!

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The Celtic Origins of Halloween
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