The History Of Samhain
- And Halloween
- Samhain (pronounced Sow-en),
dates back to the ancient Celts who lived 2,000 years ago. Contrary
to what some believe, is not a celebration of a Celtic god of
the dead. Instead, it is a
Celtic word meaning "summer's end." The Celts believed
that summer came to an end on October 31st and the New Year began
on November 1st with the start of winter. But the Celts also
followed a lunar calendar and their celebrations began at sunset
the night before.
- Many today see Halloween as the pagan holiday. But that's
not really accurate. As the pagan holiday of Samhain is on November
1st. But their celebrations did and still do, start at sunset
on October 31st, on Samhain Eve. During the day on October 31st,
the fires within the home are extinguished. Often families would
engage in a good "fall" cleaning to clear out the old
and make way for the new. Starting the winter months with fresh
and clean household items.
- At sunset on October 31, clans or local villages begin the
formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire. The
people would gather around the fire to burn crops and animals
as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a method of giving
the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous years herd
or crops. In addition these sacred fires were a big part of the
cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming
- During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced
around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played
out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of
Wheel of Life. These costumes were adorned for three primary
- The first was to honor the dead who were allowed to rise
from the Otherworld. The Celts believed that souls were set free
from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that
had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the
Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. The wearing
of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the
- Not all of these souls were honored and respected. Some were
also feared as they would return to the physical world and destroy
crops, hide livestock or 'haunt' the living who may have done
them wrong. The second reason for these traditional costumes
was to hide from these malevolent spirits to escape their trickery.
- The final representation was a method to honor the Celtic
Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks. Giving
thanks and homage to those deities who assisted the village or
clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year.
And to ask for their favor during the coming year and the harsh
winter months that were approaching.
- In addition to celebrations and dance, it was believed that
this thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld
provided extra energy for communications between the living and
the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic
Shamans would attempted to tell the fortunes of individual people
through a variety of methods. For a people entirely dependent
on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important
source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
- These psychic readings would be conducted with a variety
of divination tools. Such as throwing bones, or casting the Celtic
Ogham. There is some historical
evidence that additional tools of divination were also used.
Most of this comes from writings recorded by Roman invaders,
but there are stories of reading tea leaves, rocks and twigs,
and even simple spiritual communications that today we'd call
Channeling. Some historians have suggested that these early people
were the first to use tiles made from wood and painted with various
images which were the precursor to Tarot Cards. There's no real
evidence to support this, but the 'story' of these tiles has
lingered for centuries.
- When the community celebration was over, each family would
take a torch or burning ember from the sacred bonfire and return
to their own home. The home fires that has been extinguished
during the day were re-lit by the flame of the sacred bonfire
to help protect the dwelling and it's inhabitants during the
coming winter. These fires were kept burning night and day during
the next several months. It was believed that if a home lost
it's fire, tragedy and troubles would soon follow.
- With the hearth fires lit, the families would place food
and drink outside their doors. This was done to appease the roaming
spirits who might play tricks on the family.
- The Romans began to conquer the Celtic territories. By A.D.
43 they had succeeded in claiming the majority of the Celtic
lands. They ruled for approximately four hundred years combining
or influencing many Celtic traditional celebrations with their
own. Two Roman holidays were merged with Samhain.
- Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally
commemorated the passing of the dead.
- Pomona's Day of Honoring, 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 is practiced today on
Samhain to Halloween
- With the coming of Christianity in the 800s AD, the early
Church in England tried to Christianize the old Celtic festivals.
Pope Boniface IV designated the 1st of November as "All
Saints Day," honoring saints and martyrs. He also decreed
October 31 as "All Hallows Eve", that eventually became
- Scholars today widely accept that the Pope was attempting
to replace the earlier Celtic pagan festival with a church-sanctioned
holiday. As this Christian holiday spread, the name evolved as
well. Also called All-hallows Eve or All-hallowmas (from Middle
English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day). 200 years later,
in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls' Day, a day
to honor the dead. It is 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' day, are called Hallowmas.
November 1st or May 13th?
- Some people confuse Samhain being originally celebrated in
May with other pagan and early Christian holidays.
- Samhain comes from the Gaelic word samain. "Sam"
- summer and "fuin" - end. It literally means Summer's
End. The early Irish and Brythonic cultures believed the year
was divided in half. The dark half and the light half. Samhain
marked the end of the light half and the beginning of the Celtic
new year or the dark half.
- According to Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia (1979 Vol
12 p 152), The Druids originated the holiday. It was a celebration
of Saman Lord of the Dead who was the God of Evil Spirits. There
is some debate about this origination as the Druids were not
the only, or the first spiritual pagans of Ireland.
- Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts
come from their trade routes with the Greeks. Their culture can
be followed with great precision from the 5th Century BC through
the La Tène culture. From these early records with the
Greeks we know of some of their great festivals and in particular
one of their biggest Samhain the new years festival. Certainly
we can gain information from Julius Caesar who wrote extensively
about the Gauls during his invasion campaigns in Ireland during
4th Century BC. Eventually Rome is sacked by the Celts in 3rd
Century BC, around 390BC. The Romans in general wrote of their
warlike inhabitants and many of their barbaric celebrations.
Which included Samhain.
- In most if not all of these accounts, Samhain is immersed
in blood and sacrifice. Often in the earliest of times, those
sacrifices were human. One Greek account states these early Celts
sacrificed prisoners captured during a battle during their New
Years festival of Samhain. In The History and Origins of Druidism
by Lewis Spencer writes about the Druids stating they burned
their victims in holy fire which had to be consecrated by a Druid
- The confusion of May to November 1st probably comes from
the Christians and pagan Roman festivals. The Roman Empire was
a pagan culture. During their reign they held many pagan festivals
and celebrations, one being the Feast of the Lemures on May 13th.
During this time malevolent and restless spirits of the dead
were appeased and festival participants would attempt to gain
the favor of the spirits. The feast covered a three day period
that honored "all the dead" with food, drink and sacrifice.
- At the same time Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon
at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs. This was celebrated
in the west from May 13, 609 to 610. Pope Gregory III (731741)
during an oratory in St. Peter's for the relics "of the
holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all
the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world",
moved All Saints Day to November 1.
- This is further confused by the early Irish churches who
did not celebrate All Hallows Day in November or May, but rather
in early spring on April 20th during the Felire of Oengus and
the Martyrology of Talaght. A festival of All Saints was already
widely celebrated in the days of Charlemagne in November. But
it took a decree at the insistence of Pope Gregory IV to all
the bishops, that the celebration be confirmed on November 1st.
- These early similar celebrations come together around 835AD.
The Roman pagan festival is over taken by the early Church, the
Irish Church conforms it's celebrations with Rome, and everyone
seems to move their day of the dead to coincide with early Irish
pagans and their celebration of Samhain on November 1st.
- There's no doubt, however, that the Irish festival of Samhain
has always been at the end of summer on November 1st, and has
been one of the prominent harvest festivals for Celtic pagans
from the past and the present.
The Evolution Of Halloween
- "Trick-or-treating" is a modern tradition that
probably finds it's roots in the early All Souls' Day parades
in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for
food and families would give them pastries called "soul
cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the family's
dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged
by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving
food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred
to as "going a-souling" was eventually taken up by
children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and
be given ale, food, and money.
- "Dressing up" for Halloween gets it roots from
dressing up around the sacred bonfire during the original Celtic
festival. Some suggest, this practice originates from England,
when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world
on Halloween. People thought that they would encounter ghosts
if they left their homes, so to avoid being recognized people
would wear masks after dark so that the ghosts would mistake
them for fellow spirits. In addition, these early English people,
would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the
ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter or cause harm
to their homes. A tradition obviously taken from the ancient
- As European came to America, they brought their varied Halloween
traditions with them. Celebration of Halloween in colonial times
was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. Primarily
because Celtic immigrants settled more in these regions than
in the north.
- As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups
meshed together a distinctly American version of Halloween began
to emerge. The first celebrations included "play parties,"
public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors
would share stories of the dead, tell each other's fortunes,
dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured
the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities
were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere
in the country.
- In the second half of the nineteenth century, America entered
an age of mysticism. What was more often termed spiritualism.
Metaphysical groups and clubs began to spring up throughout the
Golden Age and the wealthier set of Americans. At the same time,
America was welcoming a new group of immigrants, especially the
millions of Irish fleeing Ireland's potato famine of 1846. This
new cultural influence brought with it a melding of Irish and
English traditions, and a new Americans culture was born. People
began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for
food or money, a practice that eventually became today's "trick-or-treat"
tradition. Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could
divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing
tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors.
- In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween
into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers,
than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the
century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became
the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on
games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were
encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything
"frightening" or "grotesque" out of Halloween
celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of
its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of
the twentieth century.
- By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but
community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties
as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many
schools and communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween
celebrations in many communities during this time. By the 1950s,
town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween
had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due
to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby
boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom
or home, where they could be more easily accommodated.
- Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating
was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive
way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration.
In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on
them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats.
A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow.
- By the 1990s, Americans have made Halloween one of the largest
commercial holidays. Spending an estimated $6.9 billion annually
on Halloween costumes, accessories, decorations and pumpkins.
- To pagans the world over, November 1st, still marks the beginning
of the New Year. To Witches and Pagans, Samhain is the Festival
of the Dead, and for many, it is the most important Sabbat (Holiday)
of the year. Although the Feast of the Dead forms a major part
of most Pagan celebrations on this eve, and at Samhain voluntary
communications are expected and hoped for. The departed are never
harassed, and their presence is never commanded. The spirits
of the dead are, however, ritually invited to attend the Sabbat
and to be present within the Circle.
- Orange and Black:
- The colors of this Sabbat are black and orange. Black to
represent the time of darkness after the death of the God (who
is represented by fire and the sun) during an earlier sabbat
known as Lughnasadh, and the waning
of light during the day. Orange represents the awaiting of the
dawn during Yule (Dec. 21st to
Jan. 1st) when the God is reborn.
- Jack O'Lanterns:
- There is some debate about the origination of Jack-o-lanterns.
One line suggests this custom originated from the lighting of
candles for the dead to follow as they walked the earth. These
candles were placed in hallowed out gourds and put on the ground
to light the way.
- Others suggest the practice originates from a Christianized
Irish myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack."
- Stingy Jack and the Devil enter a pub to have a drink. Jack
convinces the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the
drinks. But instead of using the coin, Jack slipped it into his
pocket and next to a silver cross. The cross prevented the Devil
from changing back into his original form. But Jack eventually
freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother
Jack for one year. And if Jack should die during that year, the
Devil would not claim his soul. And the Devil agreed to these
- Jack again tricked the Devil. This time, the Devil climbed
into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the
tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree's bark so
that the Devil could not come down. Once again, Jacked struck
a bargain with the Devil. He would free the Devil from the tree
if he promised not to bother Jack for ten more years. And if
Jack died during those years, the Devil would not claim his soul.
And the Devil again agreed to these terms.
- Not long after this, Jack did indeed died. But because of
his trickery, God would not allow him into heaven. In keeping
his word not to take his soul, the Devil also would not allow
Jack into hell. Instead, the Devil sent Jack out into the darkness
of the world between worlds with nothing but a burning piece
of coal. Jack placed the coal into a carved out turnip and has
been roaming the Earth ever since. The Irish began to refer to
Jack's ghostly figure as "Jack of the Lantern," and
then, simply as "Jack O'Lantern."
- The Irish and Scottish people began making lanterns by carving
scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows
or near doors to frighten away the wandering evil spirits. In
England, large beets were used. Immigrants from these countries
brought the tradition to America where they found the pumpkin,
a fruit native to America, that made the perfect jack o'lanterns.
- Tricks & Treats:
- Treats also originated from an old custom of leaving cookies
and other foods out for those relatives to enjoy as they shared
this one night of feasting. The 'trick' portion of "Trick
or Treat" was an invention of the Christians. The tricks
were supposedly caused by the dead who didn't receive a treat
of food left for them when they arrived at your door.
The Contraversary of Samhain and Halloween
- Sad to say there have been many fundamentalists who are inciting
ignorance and bigotry into the celebrations of Halloween. No
longer is Halloween a religious festival here in the US. It has
become commercialized as an event for kids to have fun, play
dress up and be scared by ghouls and ghosts. It has become nothing
more than a secular holiday.
- Those who have tried to link Halloween to Samhain are also
missing the boat. As Halloween, All Hallows Eve are Christian
created holidays devised by the early Churches of Europe as a
means to convert pagans to Christianity. The celebrations were
indeed taken from pagan practices, but their purposes have long
since been corrupted and are no longer pagan in nature. Right
down to being practiced on October 31st.
- Some one asked me if I cared that a nearby town was attempting
to change Halloween from October 31st to the last Friday of each
October. My response is why should I mind? Halloween is a Christian
holiday, do with it what you will.
- The modern celebrations of Halloween do not take away or
alter the spiritual significance of Samhain for pagan practitioners.
Our Sabbat is still intact and still honored with reverence and
in the traditional methods practiced by our ancient pagan ancestors.
Though we don't make animal sacrifices any longer, there are
some who will toss a steak into a bonfire as a symbolic gesture.
The main focus of the holiday for pagans is still to honor our
loved ones who have passed on and to share in communication with
them during this time when the veil between worlds is narrowed.
Additional articles of interests:
- In addition to the sources listed below that were used to
write this article, you might also check out the following resources:
- Natural History periodical - October 1983 p43-44
- Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross
- Celtic Mythology by McCane
- The Druids and Their Heritage by Ward Rutherford
- The Black Arts by Richard Cavendish
- Human Sacrifice by Lewis Spencer
- The History and Origins of Druidism by Lewis Spencer
Source: 1, c3,
o32, Library Of Congress
- Created: 10.17.2004