The Origins of Halloween

By Brett Barnett · Last Updated 6 years ago

"Samhain was believed to be a day when the doors between reality and the Otherworld were opened and supernatural creatures were free to walk the Earth."

Today, Halloween is largely a secular holiday, known for carved pumpkins and scary costumes more than any particular religious observance. But Halloween traces its roots back more than a thousand years and is related particularly to the ancient festival of Samhain.

Samhain was one of four seasonal festivals celebrated in Gaelic Ireland and it signalled the beginning of winter, time to take stock of the livestock and slaughter those needed for food over the cold months.

In Annals of the Four Masters, a history of Ireland written by Christian monks, it is claimed that the festival of Samhain was linked to the Celtic god Crom Cruach. The text tells of King Tigernmas’s attempts to appease the god with sacrifices—first born children whom he murdered by smashing their heads again stone idols of Crom Cruach.

Samhain was also believed to be a day when the doors between reality and the Otherworld were opened and supernatural creatures were free to walk the Earth.

Among these were the aos sí, supernatural creatures of Celtic mythology which were believed to live in a parellel world that co-existed alongside Earth, while remaining invisible to mortal eyes.

It was common during Samhain to appease the aos sí by leaving them portions of food and drink in order to ensure that livestock would survive through winter.

Samhain even had its own early version of trick-or-treating. Known as ‘mumming’ or ‘guising,’ the tradition saw children visit homes door-to-door and reciting songs in return for gifts of food. They would, of course, be in costumes. These were designed to imitate—or to ward off—the aos sí.

Samhain has since come to be celebrated as one of the four great feasts on the Wheel of the Year—an annual cycle of celebrations obseved by followers of Wicca and Neopaganism—and lives on in the traditions that still continue to this day.

One thing, however, is completely different from its modern counterpart—its title.

The name Halloween is a contraction of All Hallow’s Eve, the day preceding the Christian celebration of All Saint’s Day.

Also known as Hallowmas—from the word ‘hallow,’ a synonym for ‘saint,’—All Saint’s Day is a day dedicated to celebrating the saints and is followed by All Souls Day, a day to remember and pray for the dead, on November 2nd.

Together, these three holidays form a triduum called Allhallowtide, or simply Hallowtide, and this three-day celebration spawned it’s own take on the tradition of trick-or-treating. Children (and often people stricken by poverty) would make door-to-door visits trading prayers for the dead in return of soul cakes—small traditional desserts baked in celebration of Hallowtide.

Early trick-or-treaters.

The origin of Halloween's most iconic symbol—the Jack-O'Lantern—is less certain, but the tradition may trace its roots back to guisers during Samhain, who could carve grotesque faces into turnips.

The name Jack-O'-Lantern is an alternative name for Will-O'-the-Wisp, a legendary phenomenon in which travellers late at night witness a ghostly, atmospheric light that flickers through the trees and vanishes upon approach.

In its original form, All Saints Day was celebrated on May 13th, but it was instread celebrated on November 1st from the year 835 when the date was altered by Pop Gregory IV.

The exact reasons for this change are unknown, but some people believe that it is due to Celtic influence; that the feast was moved to coincide with the celebration of Samhain—fusing the two together into what we now know as Halloween.