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Where Did Halloween Come From?


On October 31st, you will likely see witches, ghosts, goblins, skeletons, demons, and other evil characters knocking at your door and hollering "trick or treat", and they will expect a treat, or you will be tricked. There will be parties where kids (and even adults) bob for apples, tell fortunes, or go through haunted houses. There will be decorations of jack-o-lanterns, witches on brooms, and black cats. It is the only day of the year when we give free food to strangers and display carved vegetables on our front porches. . . .when you really think about it, October 31st is a very strange day . . .Where did we get this celebration called Halloween?

Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago, in what is now Ireland, Great Britain and Northern France. The Celts were pagan nature worshipers who had many gods, including the sun, which they believed commanded their work and rest times. They believed the sun maintained the earth and kept it beautiful, and caused their crops to grow.

The Celts observed their new year on November 1, which marked the end of the harvest and summer (“the season of the sun”), as well as the beginning of the cold, dark winter ahead (“the season of darkness and cold”).

From October 31 to November 2, the Celts celebrated a 48-hour festival, the Vigil of Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”). Though if you were in the Scottish Highlands, the name would be ‘sav-en’, or in Wales, ‘sow-een’.

Celtic legends tell us that on this night, all the hearth fires in Ireland were extinguished, and then re-lit from the central fire of the Druids at Tlachtga, 12 miles from the royal hill of Tara. (The Druids were the learned class among the Celts. They were religious priests who also acted as judges, lawmakers, poets, scholars, and scientists.) Upon this sacred bonfire the Druids burned animals and crops. The extinguishing of the hearth fires symbolized the "dark half" of the year. The re-kindling from the Druidic fire was symbolic of the returning life that was hoped for in the spring.

In the Celtic belief system, turning points, such as the time between one day and the next, the meeting of sea and shore, or the turning of one year into the next were seen as magical times. The turning of the year was the most potent of these times. This was the time when the "veil between the worlds" was at its thinnest, and the dead could communicate with the living.

The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land of eternal youth and happiness called Tir nan Og. They did not have the concept of heaven and hell that the Christian church later brought into the land. The dead were sometimes believed to be dwelling with the Fairy Folk, who lived in the numerous mounds or sidhe (pron. "shee") that dotted the Irish and Scottish countryside.

The Celts did not actually have demons and devils in their belief system. Some Christians describe Halloween as a festival in which the Celts sacrificed human beings to the devil or some evil demonic god of death. This is not accurate. The Celts did believe in gods, giants, monsters, witches, spirits, and elves, but these were not considered evil, so much as dangerous. The fairies, for example, were often considered hostile and menacing to humans because they were seen as being resentful of men taking over their lands. On this night of Samhain, the fairies would sometimes trick humans into becoming lost in the fairy mounds, where they would be trapped forever.

Folk tradition tells us of some divination practices associated with Samhain. Among the most common were divinations dealing with marriage, weather, and the coming fortunes for the year. These were performed via such methods as ducking for apples and apple peeling. Ducking for apples was a marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year -- like the modern toss of the wedding bouquet. Apple peeling was a divination to see how long your life would be. The longer the unbroken apple peel, the longer your life was destined to be. In Scotland, people would place stones or nuts in the ashes of the hearth before retiring for the night. Anyone whose stone had been disturbed during the night was said to be destined to die during the coming year.

By A.D 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic land, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.

The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, 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 in practiced today on Halloween.

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-Hallowmas (from Middle English All-hollowness meaning All Saints' Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was 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 Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas.

America did not celebrate Halloween until 1910, more on this at a later date. To be continued....

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