Throughout history, Halloween has been known by many names and is celebrated in many cultures– Samhain, All Hallow’s Evening, Festival Of the Dead, Shadowfest, Ancestor Night, Feast of the Sun, Hallowe’en, and Night of the Witch just to name a few. Today, Halloween is observed the evening of Oct. 31st.
The following is by no means a definitive Halloween history but is comprised of the most common beliefs about the holiday’s origins and evolution.
Chapter 1 – The Celts
In approximately 700 B.C., a warrior tribe known as the Celts lived throughout the British Isles and northern France. The Celts lived primarily in pastoral communities, meaning they mainly raised livestock such as cows and pigs and their wealth was measured in herds. Like many people living off the earth winter was a time of particular concern. People were at the mercy of the elements and it simply was the scariest time of the year. Harvest time was of the greatest importance, as once you had harvested your goods, that’d be all you’d have for the long winter ahead. The bounty needed to be plentiful and used sparingly.
As winter approached, the Celts would often request that their priests, known as Druids, pray for them during the harsh winter season. The most important night of prayers happened on the last day of the harvest season and the first day of the dark of winter. They called this evening Samhain (pronounced Sow’ an), which is a Gaelic term (Samhuinn) meaning November and is defined as the “end of summer”. It was the first night of a solar feast and festival which lasted for several days. Samhain was celebrated on the full moon closest to November 1st, according to the lunar cycle. This marked the final harvest and provision storage for the new year and represented the transition from summer to winter.
The Celts believed that the gods controlled the sun and that the shortening days were a sign of their awesome powers. Sacred fires and fire rituals marked the solar festival. Large bonfires were built to honor the gods and to pray for the return of the sun. All fires but those of Samhain were extinguished and householders were charged a fee for any fires burning at alters during the celebration. When the evening was over, villagers relit hearth fires from the sacrificial fire in an attempt to protect themselves during the coming winter.
The bonfires were used to offer animal sacrifices (mainly horses) to the gods as a way of saying thank you to the earth for giving up her bounty at harvest time. They felt it was important to give up something, much the way the earth had. It was a time for shedding weakness. This was symbolized by slaughtering weak animals that had no chance of surviving the harsh winter ahead.
Divination and fortune telling games were also prominent at this time. The Druids would often read the burnt animal entrails looking for insights into the future. They would offer villagers information on who’d prosper and who’d die in the coming year. The stories of the prophesies the druids read were told long into the night and would often spread through local villages, thus beginning the modern traditions of telling ghost stories and playing divination (fortune telling) games on Halloween.
The large bonfires would also encourage a large amount of mosquitoes to gather and often bats and owls could be seen swooping above the bonfires. This is the earliest known associations of the animals with Halloween.
The transition between the light and dark, dusk to dawn, was thought to be a very magical time, a time of strange happenings and mischief. On this night, it was believed that the boundary between this life (living) and the afterlife (dead) was extremely thin, thin enough that the souls of the recently departed (having died within the last year) could walk the earth freely once more. Not all returning souls were friendly and the Celts did not want to be haunted by unhappy ghosts and mischievous spirits. The ancient people feared that the wondering spirits would harm their homestead and community with malicious pranks. So they created ways to appease the undesirables and pray for loved ones. Prayer vigils were held and large feasts offered food and drunken merriment to the villagers. Place settings for the dead were not uncommon at the feasts. Sweet treats and baked goods were also offered to the souls of the dead and the Celts would parade to the outskirts of their villages and leave these offerings outside with the hope that the dead would follow the parades and then would be less inclined to cause harm and mischief. To disguise themselves and confuse evil spirits, early Celts would often paint their faces with soot and wear costumes commonly made with things such as straw and animal skins. These traditions would later evolve into our modern day custom of trick-or-treating.
It has been said that the Celts dedicated their solar festival to the Lord of The Dead. There is no concrete proof that the Celts believed in a deity of the dead. This is probably the reason many give the Lord of the Dead the name Samhain but that would be incorrect.
Buy these titles from our Amazon Store!