Halloween is often a favorite holiday for many. It was not always about having fun and collecting candy. Nearly every tradition stems from one Celtic festival.

Halloween: originally a pagan holiday
Halloween: originally a pagan holiday
Photo by: Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Halloween is right around the corner. It’s just about time to buy several bags of candy, pick out a costume, and start hunting for the biggest pumpkin. Interestingly, nearly every tradition surrounding Halloween stems from a single ancient pagan festival Samhain (pronounced as Sah-ween).  The holiday is of Celtic origin and has a Gaelic name meaning “the end of summer.” During this festival, the Celts began gathering food and supplies for winter.  The Celts had four major holidays, and Samhain was the most important.

Over 2000 years ago, the festivities lasted several days. People lit bonfires to protect the living and guide spirits to the afterlife. Many dressed up, hoping to blend in with the evil walking the earth. To please spirits, the Celts would sacrifice animals or gather fruits, vegetables, and nuts. They then presented these “treats” to spirits and deities. Spirits aligned with good and evil walked the earth from October 31st until November 2nd. The traditions of wearing costumes, trick-or-treating, and pumpkin carving were once rituals of protection. Let’s jump into the history of these origins.

Dressing Up Creepy is Best

The scarier you dressed, the safer you were
The scarier you dressed, the safer you were
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

While it is now common to see people dressed up as anything from pop culture icons, to princesses, to ghosts, the latter coincides most with Samhain. Individuals dressed as ghosts, witches, fairies, and monsters to blend in with what they believed walked the earth. The Celts didn’t believe every spirit was evil but needed protection from those that were.

During ancient times, many believed an invisible veil separated the living and the dead. On Samhain, the Celts thought the veil separating these worlds became thinner. They said spirits of good and evil walked alongside the living during this festival. Many embraced the idea of seeing passed loved ones and would put out food for the spirits. Some even tried communicating with them. However, our universe requires balance; with good spirits came wicked ones. This is where costumes come into play. 

Many dressed up as monsters
Many dressed up as monsters
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Among the Celts, it was common to dress up as animals, monsters, or put ashes on their face to conceal their identity. Costumes allowed them to blend in and effectively trick spirits with ill-intentions. Many thought that those who didn’t participate could be attacked or kidnapped by fairies, demons, or witches.

Eventually, individuals began wearing costumes and went to houses requesting food. This ties into the origins of trick-or-treating, where people had to put on small performances to earn treats. Individuals continued dressing up as the creatures they believed to be roaming the earth. 

Interestingly, some dressed up as saints for protection when they went door-to-door once Christianity spread because All Saints Day is on November 2nd. Due to cultural changes and the acceptance of Catholicism, the costumes evolved. By the 20th century, we gradually dressed in the costumes most think of today. Presently, most people no longer believe spirits lurk on Halloween.

The Trick-or-Treat Show

Candy wasn't always the treat of choice
Candy wasn’t always the treat of choice
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Uncovering the true origin of going door-to-door asking for candy is explained differently among historians. Some believe the Celts put out food for spirits. Eventually, this shifted to giving food to the poor. This shift occurred around the ninth century after Catholicism spread across Europe and the United Kingdom. The influence of Catholicism led the change since Samhain was considered witchcraft. The Church created All Souls’ Day to commemorate the dead-on November 2nd.

In late October to early November, individuals still had to gather food for the coming winter. Impoverished families struggled with this; many could not afford to buy the necessary food nor materials. They went to wealthy homes, offering prayers for their dead relatives in exchange for food. Often soul cakes were the treats given out. While the idea of “treats” related to spirits, either through offerings or prayers, “tricks” did not.

After accepting and practicing Catholicism, the Irish and Scottish came up with this concept. Rather than offer prayers, some would perform a trick to earn their reward. Some would sing while others would crack a joke. In exchange for their recital, they received a treat. These treats were often fruit, nuts, or even money. 

Trickster Jack-O-Lanterns

Why do we carve pumpkins?
Why do we carve pumpkins?
Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash

Carving Jack-O-Lanterns is a fun tradition, loved by many. Whether or not it was part of Samhain is unclear, but it began in the Middle Ages. Instead of carving pumpkins, individuals would string up turnips, radishes, or potatoes and place a burning coal inside. The legend of “Stingy Jack” influenced this tradition. This trickster is the reason we carve pumpkins.

According to legend, a man named Stingy Jack invited the Devil to drink with him. By evening’s end, Stingy Jack, as the name implies, refused to pay. It took some convincing, but he got the Devil to turn himself into a coin Jack used to pay for their drinks. After this, the problem started. Jack kept the coin and placed it beside a silver cross so the Devil couldn’t change back (it’s often believed that silver deflects evil). Jack only freed the Devil under the condition that he would not be bothered for a year, and his soul not reaped should he die.

The Devil was stuck as a coin
The Devil was stuck as a coin
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

As time went on, Jack continued his tricks and avoided the Devil’s grasp. When Jack died, God would not allow him into heaven because of his games with such evil. The Devil, fed up with Jack, wouldn’t let him into hell. With nowhere to go, he had to wander the earth for eternity with only a burnt coal to illuminate his path. Along the way, Jack placed this into a turnip creating a lantern of sorts.

Eventually, the story spread, pumpkins gradually replaced turnips, radishes, and potatoes. People began making their own Jack-o-lanterns, influenced by Jack’s tale. Some believed that much like a gargoyle, carving scary faces on the pumpkins would keep evil spirits away from their home.

While Samhain is over 2000 years old, different forms of it exist across the globe. On November 5th, the U.K. celebrates Guy Fawkes Day with parties and bonfires. On October 31st, the U.S. celebrates Halloween by wearing costumes and going trick-or-treating. Other ancient civilizations celebrated similar holidays, like El Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico.

Samhain has gone through a few name changes, known as Hallows Eve (meaning holy) before Halloween, but the traditions are still around. The once pagan holiday became Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. This ancient holiday holds lots of culture and myth, some of which have come into the common era. To celebrate this year, maybe dress up as a spooky ghost, carve your most terrifying pumpkin and kick back with a soul cake or two; there are a plethora of recipes across cooking sites.


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