Over two centuries ago, settlements of Celtic
people occupying modern day Ireland, Northern France,
England, Scotland and surrounding areas prepared
for Samhain (or "summer's end") with
With bon fires aglow and the smell of autumn rich
in the air, Samhain marked not only the end of the
harvest and the start of the Celtic New Year; it
was a time when the veil between the dead and the
living was believed to be thinnest.
Often regarded as the ancient precursor of
Halloween, Samhain kicked off on the eve of
October 31 and lasted through November 1 (the
Celtic New Year) each year. It was the time of the
annual livestock slaughter, heralded by great feasting
and open attempts to commune directly with the dead.
"The Celts believed that the dead rose on
the eve of Samhain and that ancestral ghosts and demons
were set free to roam the earth…" writes Lesley
Pratt Bannatyne in Halloween: An American Holiday,
an American History. "Samhain marked the start of
the season that rightly belonged to spirits-a time
when nights were long and dark fell early. It was a frightening
time for a people who were entirely subject to the
forces of nature, and who were superstitious about
Similar to modern Halloween, Samhain was a holiday
dedicated to the spiritual aspects of life, anchored
by fear and wonderment surrounding death. Only,
arguably for the Celts, Samhain was far more
literal and deliberate than the customs observed
by Americans on modern Halloween today. Let's observe.
Times, Different Beliefs
One certainly might even argue that the
trick-or-treating, apple bobbing and costume
parties we know today are but a far cry from their
original, ritualistic precursors; represented in
the customs of the Celts.
From 2,000 years ahead in the future, the customs
observed on Samhain paint a clear picture of a far
more superstitious ancient peoples occupying
Western Europe than do today.
Indeed, the idea of witches, demons and spirits
for the Celts were not reserved exclusively for
campfire stories - they were genuine
considerations made all the more troubling on
Samhain when the waning of summer gave way to six months
of cold, dark winter.
Bannatyne paints a picture that is easy to separate
from the modern spectacle of Halloween in terms of
the intensity and specificity of Samhain rituals.
Consider that on Samhain the living would quite
literally invite the dead to their dinner table -
preparing a plate, chair and all - and already the
beliefs of those who celebrated Samhain differ
greatly from modern day Halloween revelers.
Or consider that Druid priests of the Irish
hillsides or the Celtic tribesmen would pray for
the sun to return for fear that winter would never
end and again, an inert meaning behind the holiday
has since been lost on Halloween.
all jack-o'-lanterns are made from pumpkins. This traditional
Irish one is caved from a turnip.
(Photo by rannáirtí
anainid licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Then, of course, there were the families from
Wales who marked white stones which they threw into the
ashes of their bonfires before heading to bed at
night. Upon awakening the next morning, said
families would wearily count the stones. If one
stone went missing throughout the night, it was believed
that there would surely be a death in the coming year.
Lastly, consider the story of Scottish farmers
who carried lit torches of braided straw, walking deosil
(with the sun) around the perimeter of their land
to ward off witches and bring fertility to the
In all instances and with a little distance and
objectivity, it becomes clear that the customs and
rituals of Samhain have been largely forgotten in
contemporary American Halloween.
Roots-Samhain, All Saints', All Souls', All
Hallows Eve & More
Clearly Samhain took some turns early on its
evolution that changed it greatly before it
finally became the Halloween we all know today. So
if Samhain and Halloween are so different while at
once, clearly cut from the same basic cloth, how and
why did they change and evolve over time into the Halloween
we know and love in 2013?
Samhain represented the culmination of many belief
systems and influences. Indeed, Bannatyne points out
that the Celts drew from the Roman harvest
celebration of the goddess Pomona and practices of
the early Catholic Church to form the customs of
the festival in general.
According to Bannatyne, as the white American
population had grown to 200,000 people by1680, the
holiday continued to change with time. By the
first federal census just over 100 years later in
1790, that number had climbed to 3,637,900 whites
in the former colonies. While predominantly English, this burgeoning
melting pot ushered in a slew of religions,
histories and languages that resulted in the
celebration of Hallowmas, or other autumn
For the more buttoned up Puritans of Massachusetts
Bay Colony, New Hampshire and Connecticut, a general
deficiency of holidays were to be expected. For
Rhode Island, however, which celebrated freedom of
religion, and New York, which was colonized by New
Reformed Dutch who were known to love festivity,
things would have also been viewed and treated differently
concerning the holiday.
The largely German and Swiss settlers of
Pennsylvania brought with them spiritual and
folkloric traditions (magic and witchcraft), which
clearly had an impact on the beliefs of the
region. And perhaps most directly, the Catholics of Maryland,
who brought with them Saints days - feasts and practices
of the Old World including Hallomas - clearly
their beliefs leaked into the eventual birth of
the Halloween we know today.
Rounding out Virginia was the Church of England,
which celebrated Catholic saints' days and old English
folk holidays. And to the south, Spanish
Catholics, Africans and Anglicans molded the
beliefs of the southern colonies to ultimately
shape the Halloween traditions of the New World in that region.
traditional American Halloween
celebration circa 1905.
In a nutshell, Halloween clearly represented the
culmination of no single practice or belief system,
but instead the melding of an entirely new
"animal" all together in the New World. In the
end, All Saints' and All Souls' Days, Old World
pagan beliefs, magical beliefs, witchcraft and many other
factors ultimately helped to evolve the experience we know as
Halloween in 2013.
Yet even with all that is known about Halloween,
it is still easy for Americans to mistake the holiday
for something else or to get its derivatives wrong
Author Lisa Morton discusses the pitfalls of pealing
back the layers of Halloween in Trick or Treat:
A History of Halloween. She writes:
"Halloween is undoubtedly the most misunderstood
of festivals. Virtually every English-speaker in
the world can instantly tell you where the name
'Christmas' comes from…but amazingly few
understand so much as the origin of the name 'Halloween'.
The word itself almost has a strange, pagan feel - which is
ironic, since the name derives from 'All Hallows
Eve'. Prior to about AD 1500, the noun 'hallow'
(derived from the Old English halga, meaning
'holy') commonly referred to a holy personage or,
specifically, a saint. All Saints' Day was the original
name for the Catholic celebration held on 1 November, but -
long after 'hallow' had lost its meaning as a noun -
the eve of that day would become known as
Clearly the roots of Halloween are more tangled
than a simple short article can even do justice.
But one thing is for certain, no matter why or
how you celebrate Halloween, it has taken on the unique
character of the New World and countless cultural
sub pockets in an ongoing dance of absorption,
inculcation and adaptation.
Indeed, only time will tell the true future of
For that reason, we would like to hear from you
about what you plan on doing this Halloween. Even if
it's as simple as trick-or-treating or going to a
party at a friend's house, your traditions may
very well be helping to shape the future of
Halloween as did the traditions of Americans, Celts
and people from countless walks of life and cultures over the
So let's make some history!
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One winner will be chosen from the group of
comments on Friday, October 15, 2013. Good luck,
one and all and Happy Halloween!