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The ancient origins of Halloween

Updated February 21, 2017

Halloween as a modern celebration is chock-full of commercialism and fripperies, but many hundreds of years ago, many Celtic tribespeople stood shoulder to shoulder in the dark across Ireland, waiting for one fruitful half of the year to be over and the next, colder half, to begin. This was Samhain, the feast of the dead, where those long gone could return to visit their loved ones for one night, before the cold winter began.

"Many centuries ago in ancient pre-Christian Ireland, Celtic society marked the first day of November as New Year’s Day. They called it Samhain — Celtic for "the end of summer." Samhain eve, Oct. 31, was a night of supernatural sights and sounds, where the dead walked the earth to make contact with the living and strange things happened."

Edward T. O 'Donnell, The Irish Echo Online

Celtic meaning

The Celts in Ireland thought of the year as being divided into four parts, roughly following the seasons. Each quarter of the year was marked by festival days, and Samhain was the festival day to mark the end of autumn and the beginning of winter.

The first day of November can be thought of as New Year's Day in the Celtic calendar. The night before, therefore, which was the 31st of October, was the night where the festival was held, beginning when the sun went down and those celebrating were aware of the thin veil between life and death. Tribes would have gathered in areas of special importance to their druidic priests and priestesses, such as the Tlachtga and Tara hills in the Boyne valley in present-day county Meath. Families would have looked forward and wished for a safe passage through the winter months, where food and shelter were at a premium. The transition between autumn and winter was also regarded as a good time to perform marriages and conduct business, and the priests and priestesses were busy making divinations for the year ahead.

Original celebrations

Samhain was a community effort for the Celts, where an atmosphere both celebratory and sombre was created by the lighting of communal bonfires and the presence of pagan rites.

Bonfires were central to the Samhain celebrations, as they represented the safety and life-giving aspects of fire, and also served as a central location for the tribe to gather around in warmth. The light of the fires were also supposed to scare those spirits away who wished to cause harm to the community, and as an adjunct to this, the tribes also strengthened their boundaries on the Samhain night. Although animals had to be slaughtered in preparation for the winter shortage of food, the Celts did not feast excessively on Samhain, unlike the modern day expectation of excess. There was food to eat, and some was prepared especially as a gift for the dead, who were visiting on that night. Pragmatically, though, the spirits' food was generally given to those members of the tribe who were poor enough to appreciate some extra food on Samhain. To placate the dead, the Celts also made precursors of the modern-day pumpkin by making a bowl out of a turnip and lighting a candle inside. This light was both to guide the dead and also to prevent the spirits from becoming angry and destroying livestock or crops.

Modern Twists

When Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century A.D., the old pagan traditions and the new Christian way of celebrating religion clashed. AS the druids died out and Christianity began to take over, the pagan meaning of the traditions were subsumed into Christianity, and while adults and kids still practiced versions of the old traditions, they no longer knew why they were performing them.

The spread of Christianity across Europe necessarily meant displacing religions that were already ingrained in the locals. In Ireland, some Catholic celebrations were moved to fit existing celebrations, and this occurred with Samhain and the Catholic feast of All Saints Day, on the 1st of November, making All Hallow's Eve, the night where the dead were celebrated, on the 31st of October. Rory Fitzgerald, writing for "The Irish Catholic" newspaper, says "Some suspect that Pope Gregory III changed the dates deliberately to correspond with Samhain as a tactical move to Christianise a pagan celebration, and thus help bring people into the Catholic fold."

The tradition of scaring off the dead originated thousands of years ago, in the form of candles and bonfires, but dressing up in scary outfits to confuse the spirits is also a centuries old tradition. When many Irish emigrated to America and Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought the traditions of candles in turnips, dressing up in costumes, and visiting neighbours. Throughout the centuries, the night became a time for young adults to let loose and joke around, giving rise to the tradition of giving food and drink to those revellers coming to the door. These have now morphed into hollowed out pumpkins (more accessible in America and easier to carve), dressing up in commercially-produced outfits, and trick or treating for children, more so than for adults like previously.

The Winter Transition

Samhain was also celebrated by the Celts living in Scotland, and versions of the festival were also common across Europe, because everyone living in those harsh times recognised the transition between autumn and winter as an important one. The winter solstice was also marked as an important date during the winter, and some massive stone circles were built where solstice celebrations could occur.

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About the Author

Jillian O'Keeffe has been a freelance writer since 2009. Her work appears in regional Irish newspapers including "The Connacht Tribune" and the "Sentinel." O'Keeffe has a Master of Arts in journalism from the National University of Ireland, Galway and a Bachelor of Science in microbiology from University College Cork.