Over the years, the popularity of Halloween has grown exponentially. It has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry which includes movies, costumes, trick-or-treat candy and haunted attractions, yet few of its passionate celebrants understand the holiday’s ancient origin. Here are 13 facts about its Celtic roots to keep you up at night.
1) WHEN October 31st lines up with Samhain, pronounced sow-in (rhymes with cow). It is one of the four major Celtic festivals, the others being Imbolc February 1-2; Beltane, May 1-2; and Lughnasadh, August 1-2. Similar to Jewish traditions, Celtic days begin at sundown. Samhain begins at dusk on October 31st and ends at sundown on November 1st. It falls between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It marks the time when darkness overtakes the light.
2) WHERE It is celebrated as the festival called Samhain in Ireland. It is also celebrated in Scotland as Samhainn or Samhuinn and Isle of Man as Sauin. There were similar observances in other Celtic lands - Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany. Some Neolithic sites in Ireland such as the Mound of the Hostages (Dumha na nGiall) at the Hill of Tara and Cairn L at Slieve na Calliagh were constructed to specifically capture the sunrise on Samhain. This is evidence that the people who inhabited Ireland long before the Celts held that date in high regard.
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3) WHAT HAPPENS It was believed that during both Samhain and Beltane, the barriers between the world of the living and the land of the spirits was at its weakest. This allowed the dead to easily cross over and inhabit the land of the living for a period of time. The Celts would prepare large meals, keep their doors open and leave empty seats at the table so that dead ancestors could visit and have a chat with their living relatives.
4) COSTUMES The wearing of costumes – also called mumming or guising - is believed to serve the purpose of blending in with spirits or Aos SÍ of the Otherworld. It was thought that by dressing up, one would fool the spirits into thinking you were one of them and would therefore be protected.
5) TREATS Safety and preservation of livestock during the harsh winter months was of paramount importance to the ancient Celts. By dressing in costume and going door to door in song (predecessor of caroling?), it was thought that the bribe of treats would appease the spirits and they would not kill your livestock during the long winter. While vandalism associated with Halloween has dropped dramatically over the years, the idea that those who gave treats would be spared damage to property is clearly a throwback to appeasing wandering spirits for protection.
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6) JACK-O-LANTERNS Arguably the most recognizable of the season’s symbols, the Jack-O-Lantern has its roots in Ireland and other parts of Europe. While pumpkins are used today, turnips and other gourdes were also used in the past. One particular Irish tale tells of Stingy Jack, a blacksmith, who tricks Satan into climbing an apple tree. Once the Devil gets to the top, Stingy Jack places and carves crosses on the tree trapping Satan at the top. Jack will only release Satan on the promise of never taking his soul. Due to his earthly sins, Jack could not enter heaven and because of his deal with the Devil he also could not go to hell. He is therefore destined to wander the Earth with the light of Hades illuminating from carved gourdes.
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7) BOBBING FOR APPLES Apples have been a prominent symbol in Western European lore and mythology. Even Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden with this ever-present fruit. When the Romans invaded Britain, they brought along their customs. One was the celebration in honor of Pomona, the goddess of plenty, whose feast day was November 1st. Her symbol was the apple. Young couples would ‘bob’ for them to determine who would be the next to wed.
8) NEW YEAR Samhain is recognized as the Celtic New Year. Similar to days beginning at sundown, it was recognized that New Year ushered in the earthly darkness. Traditionally, this is the time when livestock were brought in for slaughter. The colder weather made it an ideal time for the killing and preservation of meats and fowl.
9) ALL SAINTS DAY & ALL SOULS DAY Up until the 8th Century, Christians celebrated All Saints Day in May, then named Lemuria. Pope Gregory III moved the celebration to correlate with Samhain, which had a similar theme of honoring the dead.10) FIRE Like many ancient celebrations, Celtic and otherwise, fire played a prominent role. To symbolize the end of the year, home fires were extinguished. Soot and ash from these fires was used to coat the skin as a means of protection. Communal bonfires were built as part of the Samhain festivities. It was from these fires that personal hearths were relit for the New Year.
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11) NORTH AMERICA While there is some indication of recognition of All Hollow’s Eve by some early Anglican and Catholic settlers, it is not until the mass exodus from Ireland as a result of the Great Hunger that Halloween and its predecessor Samhain are introduced on a large scale in the Americas. The first record of children dressing up and going door to door for treats comes from Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1911. This is considered the birth of what we know today as Halloween.12) BLACK CATS The symbol of this obsidian feline bringing bad luck comes from the medieval notion that witches had the ability to shape-shift. It was believed that a popular transformation was to that of a black cat. The superstition associated with this has carried over to Halloween symbolism.
13) POPULAR CULTURE The popular Halloween film franchise makes more than one reference to Samhain. In Halloween II (1981), the killer Michael Myers writes the word on a classroom wall. (Note that Dr. Loomis mispronounces it phonetically as sam-hain.) In Halloween III – Season of the Witch (1982), the antagonist Conal Cochran (who happens to be Irish) proclaims, “Halloween….the festival of Samhain! The last great one took place 3,000 years ago when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.” In modern music, Glenn Danzig founded the band Samhain after his departure from The Misfits, penning themed songs such as Halloween II and November-Coming-Fire.
Today, as previously mentioned, Halloween is a massive industry. According to the National Retail Federation, it is estimated that Halloween-related sales will net over $8.8 billion in 2019. Beyond the commercialization, many of the neopagan and Wiccan community honor aspects of Halloween’s Celtic past in their ritual celebrations. There is much to consider beyond bite-size candy bars and phony tombstones on the front lawn. Remember the layers of history and tradition while carving your turnip this month.