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Halloween Origins - Samhain

What do you think of when you think about Halloween? Most people associate it with guisers*, decorations and scary movies. But did you know the pagan Celtic origins of Halloween involved bonfires, sacrifices, and wandering spirits?

Who were the Celts?

The Celts lived approximately 2000 years ago, spread across Western Europe including Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, France and Spain. The Celts were not so much a singular people, so much as clusters that shared similar beliefs, traditions and culture. Unfortunately for us, the Celts left no written documents through which could be analysed, so much of what we know about the Celts stem from archaeological evidence, and what can be (carefully) taken from the writings of three Romans, Tacitus, Caesar and Strabo. Though popular culture has made it tempting to view the Celts as primitive, brutal people, archaeological evidence suggests that they were great lovers of art and were capable of designing and creating beautiful pieces of jewelry - some of which are available currently for viewing at the National Museum of Scotland.

The Celtic Origins of Halloween

Samhain** was a Celtic fire festival traditionally celebrated on November 1st, the date of the Celtic new year. To the Celts, this festival represented the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of winter. As in many cultures, the beginning of winter was traditionally associated with death. It was believed that on the eve of their new year - October 31st- the veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead would thin, allowing the dead to return, and walk among the living.

Whilst the dead could be troublesome, they were most often welcomed and could help the Druids with their predictions for the upcoming year. Prophecies were important to the Celts for comfort, hope and a sense of religious and physical security throughout the winter. The desire for hope, security and comfort are not foreign concepts to people today. Samhain was a time for people to feel close to their deceased relatives, often leaving out offerings of food.

[The Celts lit bonfires during Samhain -photo from BBC website Chris Malec]

On the 31st, the hearth fires would be snuffed out. This is similar to how some people tidy and clear out their homes in preparation for the new year in an attempt to avoid bringing mess or clutter with them into the new year. The Druids would then build huge sacred bonfires where people would gather, socialise and burn offerings to their gods, such as crops or animals. The people would then relight their hearths with fire from the bonfire, believing it would protect them throughout the winter.

In Ireland, people carved turnips to frighten away restless spirits. Similarly, Its also been suggested that some people would have dressed up in costumes to ward off unfriendly spirits- perhaps the origins of Halloween costumes and pumpkin carvings.

[Carved turnips - photo English Heritage]

All Saints Day

In 609 AD Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Roman Pantheon to Christian martyrs, and established 'All Martyrs Day'. Pope Gregory III expanded All Martyrs Day to include saints and moved the date of the celebration from May 13th to November 1st.

By the 9th century, Christianity's influence had spread into Western Europe, where it slowly merged with and replaced Celtic rituals and celebrations. In 1000 A.D the Catholic Church decreed that November 2 would become 'All Souls’ Day'. This day was to honor and remember all dead. It has been suggested that this was an attempt by the Church to replace Samhain with a day of the dead they approved of.

All Saints Day was similar to Samhain in that bonfires were lit, parades were held and people dressed in costumes as saints, angels and demons.


Eventually, the eve of All Saints Day became All Hallows Eve, this eventually linguistically morphed into Halloween. Halloween is celebrated across the world in many different forms - dooking***, guising, dressing up and storytelling being the main activities in Scotland.

Samhain is still celebrated in some form by Wiccans, who, like the Celts view it as their new year. It's a time to celebrate their dead and pay respects to their ancestors.


What does Halloween look like where you're from? We hope you have a very Happy Halloween.



*The Scottish name for Trick or Treaters, with 'Guising' being the practice of trick or treating.

** Samhain - a Gaelic word pronounced SAH-win.

***Dooking - Scottish word for bobbing for apples.

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