Halloween or All Hallows Eve, as it is sometimes referred to, is a lot different now than it may have been celebrated many centuries ago.

Earliest Trace
Peter Tokofsky, an assistant professor in the department of folklore and mythology in UCLA states, "The earliest trace (of Halloween) is the Celtic festival, Samhain, which was the Celtic New Year. It was the day of the dead, and they believed the souls of the deceased would be available" .

Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) means "summer's end" by the Celts. In old Germanic and Celtic societies, what we call equinoxes and solstices marked the middles of the season, not the beginnings." Therefore if there exist an autumnal equinox, winter solstice, spring equinox and a summer solstice, there are also the beginning of autumn, winter, spring and summer. All of these eight dates were important. Summer's end which meant the beginning of winter was an important time for people who survived on plants grown in the field and animals that were kept in pastures. "This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death" It is most likely this reason that the Druids (Celtic pagans) believed that the spirits of those who died the preceding year roamed the earth the night of Samhain

The Druids celebrated this holiday "with a great fire festival to encourage the dimming Sun not to vanish" and people "danced round bonfires to keep evil sprits away, but left their doors open in hopes that the kind spirits of loved ones might join them around their hearths". On this night, "divination was thought to be more effective than any other time, so methods were derived to ascertain who might marry, what great person might be born, who might rise to prominence, or who might die". Also during the celebration, the Celts "wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes". Crops were burned and animals were sacrificed. The spirits were believed to be either "entertained by the living", or to "find a body to possess for the incoming year". This all gives reasons as to why "dressing up like witches, ghosts and goblins, villagers could avoid being possessed."

Roman Influence
By 43 AD, "Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory." For the 400 years they occupied Celtic lands, two Roman festivals: Feralia (the commemoration of the passing of the dead) and a day to honor Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruits and trees). The apple served as a symbol for Pomona and which might have been incorporated into Samhain by the practice of "bobbing for apples".

Christian Influence
When "local people converted to Christianity during the early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church often incorporated modified versions of older religious traditions in order to win converts." Pope Gregory IV wanted to substitute Samhain with All Saints' Day in 835, but All Souls' Day (Nov. 2nd) which is closer in resemblance to Samhain and Halloween today, was "first instituted at a French monastery in 998 and quickly spread throughout Europe". In the 16th century, "Christian village children celebrated the vigil of All Saints' by doing the Danse Macabre. The Seven Brethren whose grizzly death is described in the seventh chapter of the deuterocanonical book of Second Macabees" is also said to have resulted in children dressing up in grizzly costumes to signify these deaths.

Modern Halloween
Halloween came to the United States when European immigrants "brought their varied Halloween customs with them". In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants including the Irish fleeing from the potato famine in Ireland in 1846. By combining Irish and English traditions, Americans began the "trick-or-treat" tradition. In the later 1800's the holiday became more centered on community and in the 1920's and 1930's, Halloween became "a secular, but community-centered holiday". In the 1950's leaders changed Halloween as a holiday aimed at the young to limit vandalism. This all led to what Halloween actually is like today.

Listed below are some of the most commonly asked questions concerning the origins and customs of Halloween.

1. Where does Halloween come from?

Our modern celebration of Halloween is a descendent of the ancient Celtic fire festival called "Samhain". The word is pronounced "sow-in", with "sow" rhyming with cow.

2. What does "Samhain" mean?

The Irish English dictionary published by the Irish Texts Society defines the word as follows: "Samhain, All Hallowtide, the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, signalizing the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season, lasting till May, during which troops (esp. the Fiann) were quartered. Faeries were imagined as particularly active at this season. From it the half year is reckoned. also called Feile Moingfinne (Snow Goddess). The Scottish Gaelis Dictionary defines it as "Hallowtide. The Feast of All Soula. Sam + Fuin = end of summer." Contrary to the information published by many organizations, there is no archaeological or literary evidence to indicate that Samhain was a deity. The Celtic Gods of the dead were Gwynn ap Nudd for the British, and Arawn for the Welsh. The Irish did not have a "lord of death" as such.

3. Why was the end of summer of significance to the Celts?

The Celts were a pastoral people as opposed to an agricultural people. The end of summer was significant to them because it meant the time of year when the structure of their lives changed radically. The cattle were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills and the people were gathered into the houses for the long winter nights of story- telling and handicrafts.

4. What does it have to do with a festival of the dead?

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. Samhain was the new year to the Celts. 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 magickal 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 living could communicate with their beloved dead in Tir nan Og.

5. What about the aspects of "evil" that we associate with the night today?

The Celts did not have demons and devils in their belief system. The fairies, however, were often considered hostile and dangerous to humans because they were seen as being resentful of men taking over their lands. On this night, they would sometimes trick humans into becoming lost in the fairy mounds, where they would be trapped forever. After the coming of the Christians to the Celtic lands, certain of the folk saw the fairies as those angels who had sided neither with Gor or with Lucifer in their dispute, and thus, were condemned to walk the earth until judgment day. In addition to the fairies, many humans were abroad on this night, causing mischief. since this night belonged neither to one year or the other, Celtic folk believed that chaos reigned
and the people would engage in "horseplay and practical jokes". This served also as a final outlet for high spirits before the gloom of winter set in.

6. What about "trick or treat"?

During the course of these hijinks, many of the people would imitate the fairies and go from house to house begging for treats. Failure to supply the treats would usually result in practical jokes being visited on the owner of the house. Since the fairies were abroad on this night, an offering of food or milk was frequently left for them on the steps of the house, so the homeowner could gain the blessings of the "good folk" for the coming year. Many of the households would also leave out a "dumb supper" for the spirits of the departed. The folks who were abroad in the night imitating the fairies would some- times carry turnips carved to represent faces. This is the origin of our modern Jack-o-lantern.

7. Was this also a religious festival?

Yes. Celtic religion was very closely tied to the Earth. Their great legends are concerned with momentous happenings which took place around the time of Samhain. many of the great battles and legends of kings and heroes center on this night. Many of the legends concern the promotion of fertility of the earth and the insurance of the continuance of the lives of the people through the dark winter season.

8. How was the religious festival observed?

Unfortunately, we know very little about that. W.G. Wood-Martin, in his book, "Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland" states, "There is comparitively little trace of the religion of the Druids now discoverable, save in the folklore of the peasantry, and the references relative to it that occur in ancient and authentic Irish manuscripts are, as far as present appearances go, meagre and insufficient to support anything like a sound theory for full development of the ancient religion." The Druids were the priests of the Celtic peoples. They passed on their teachings by oral tradition instead of committing them to writing, so when they perished, most of their religious teachings were lost. We DO know that this festival was characterized as one of the four great "Fire Festivals" of the Celts. 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. This fire was kindled from "need fire" which had been generated by the friction of rubbing two sticks together as opposed to more conventional methods common in those days. The extinguishing of the fires symbolized the "dark half" of the year, and the re-kindling from the Druidic fires was symbolic of the returning life hoped for, and brought about through the ministrations of the priesthood.

9. What about sacrifices?

Animals were certainly killed at this time of year. :( This was the time to "cull" from the herds those animals which were not desired for breeding purposes for the next year. Most certainly, some of these would have been done in a ritualistic manner for the use of the priesthood.

10. Were humans sacrificed?

Scholars are sharply divided on this account, with about half believing that it took place and half doubting its veracity. Caesar and Tacitus certainly tell tales of the human sacrifices of the Celts, but Nora Chadwick points out in her book "The Celts" that "it is not without interest that the Romans themselves had abolished human sacrifices not long before Caesar's time, and references to the
practice among various barbarian peoples have certain overtones of self-righteousness. There is little direct archaeological evidence relevant to Celtic sacrifice." Indeed, there is little reference to this practice in Celtic literature either. The only surviving story echoes the story of the Minotaur in Greek legend. The Fomorians, a race of evil giants said to inhabit portions of Ireland before the coming of the Tuatha de Danaan, or "people of the Goddess Danu",demanded the sacrifice of 2/3 of the corn, milk, and first born children of the Fir Bolg, or human inhabitants of Ireland. The De Danaan ended this practice in the second battle of Moy Tura, which incidentally took place on Samhain.

11. What other practices were associated with this season?

Folk tradition tells us of many 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. Apple peeling was a divination tosee how long your life would be. The longer the unbroken apple peel, the longer your life was destined to be.(9) In Scotland, people would place stones 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.

12. How did these ancient Celtic practices come to America?

When the potato crop in Ireland failed, many of the Irish people, modern day descendents of the Celts, immigrated to America, bringing with them their folk practices, which are the remnants of the Celtic festival observances.

13. We in America view this as a harvest festival. Did the Celts also view it as such?

Yes. The Celts had 3 harvests: Aug 1, or Lammas, was the first harvest, when the first fruits were offered to the Gods in thanks. The Fall Equinox was the "true harvest". This was when the bulk of the crops would be brought in. Samhain was the final harvest of the year. Anything left on the vines or in the fields after this date was considered blasted by the fairies, or "pu'ka", and unfit for human consumption.

14. Does anyone today celebrate Samhain as a religious observance?

Yes. many followers of various pagan religions, such as Druids and Wiccans observe this day as a religious festival. They view it as a memorial day for their dead friends, similar to the national holiday of Memorial Day in May. It is still a night to practice various forms of divination concerning future events. Also, it is considered a time to wrap up old projects, take stock of ones life, and initiate new projects for the coming year. As the winter season is approaching, it is a good time to do studying on research projects and also a goot time to begin hand work such as sewing, leather working, woodworking, etc. for Yule gifts later in the year.

15. Does this involve human or animal sacrifice?

Absolutely NOT! Hollywood to the contrary, blood sacrifice is not practiced by modern day followers of Wicca or Druidism. There may be some people who THINK they are practicing Wicca by performing blood sacrifices, but this is NOT condoned by reputable practitioners of the modern day NeoPagan religions.

Source: Rees, Alwyn and Brinley, "Celtic Heritage, Ancient Traditions in Ireland and Wales", New York: Thanes & Hudson, 1961

Responses to "The Origins of Halloween"

  1. Anonymous says:

    love the last picture

  2. AbelyssahBeo says:

    I want to do alot of inquiring in this year to come..the decrease of the herd , in nature I wonder if the ceremonial of the withering or weak animals would call to be taken from this soil by due gifting/sacrifice in natural order . I know that all animals are given to be frugal and fair ..I had wondered if one of the behaviors of wplf beying was to fairly warn of needing to circulate the order of existance and to call to those animals as want to return to soil .No spirit that has left this soil would be in turmoil or angry because it 'sees truth and has no anxiety of 'knowing soil .. as spirits are circulatory through the cosmos and 'heavens our blood through veins ..I am considering if all creation is quite recircumvented in its travel of existance. I think I need to look at the food order . May be that the wolf has aquired the miscalculated 'fear when actually may be a guardian honor to no veil as helper of natural order .xx

  3. Unknown says:

    White Wolf, you are the penultimate giver, as you share such beauty and lore with with us. Thank you for making the holiday so much more interesting. And btw, I have a new totem animal, thanks to a dream and your sharing the information. ((hugs))

  4. Ruth says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Thank you xx

  5. Anonymous says:


  6. I found this a very informative and interesting read. I love the last picture. It would look nice on my profile page, the wolf reminds me of my Dog Sam who passed on last a beautiful black kitten Bubbles is my friend. thanks for sharing. many blessings

  7. Unknown says:


  8. wolfsynn says:

    Excellent article. Thanks. :)

  9. PBMorlen says:

    I adore all your information, carry it with me, share it, embrace it, and above all else, honor every word. Thank you!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting. ..

  11. Anonymous says:

    I liked it a lot of history i did not know

  12. Unknown says:

    Thank you for sharing!!!! Happy New Year! :D

  13. Unknown says:

    Really good article, thank you for the references and some new facts I did not know. The pictures are fantastic. Love your good work. :3 <3

  14. Anonymous says:

    Thank You for all the Information..

  15. Anonymous says:

    adore your stories every single day

  16. Anonymous says:

  17. We really enjoyed reading your piece. We are a community who rekindle the fires of Tlachtga each year on Oct 31st to be as inclusive to all as possible. This year is the 16th year of our Samhain Festival of Fire and Torchlight Procession. We walk to the site of Tlachtga from 7:30pm each year and are joined by people from all over the world. The Festival is FREE and open to all.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Unless you're talking about bears, it's "grisly" not "grizzly".

  19. Great explanation.

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