How Samhain Became Halloween

Like so many “Christian” holidays, Halloween didn’t start out as a Christian holiday, but was originally a pagan celebration called Samhain.

The Origins of Samhain

Samhain was originally a Celtic celebration. Before the Romans and Christianity suppressed the Pagan priests, the start of the of the New Year was actually November 1 which meant that what we now call New Years Eve fell on October 31.

At the time, the Celts believed that on this date, the whole concept of time basically turned upside down and the present, the past, and the future blended into a single night. The barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at it’s thinnest point and that evil spirits took advantage of this opportunity to pass from one world to the next. During this night, the Celtic priests had one very simple goal, prevent the evil spirits from passing through the veil and wrecking havoc on the world of the living.

While the priests worked hard to prevent evil spirits from passing through the veil, the general population covered themselves in skins and wore scary masks. This was done in an attempt to trick any evil spirts that managed to make it past the priests into thinking the costumed person was actually a cohort, and not someone with a harvestable soul.

In addition to wearing costumes, other ritualistic events that took place during Samhain included:

  • Adding goats to cow herds (which had just been moved out of summer pastures) in order to protect the cattle from evil spirts
  • Families lit large torches which they paraded around the perimeter of their property
  • A traditional, traditional Dumb Supper was organized
  • Sacrifices were made to various Celtic deities. These sacrifices were burned in huge bonfires

While Samhain typically focused on angry souls and evil spirts, there was one group of people who looked forward to the night. Any family who believed that fairies had stolen a loved one, eagerly prepared for Samhain because it was the one night when fairies were willing to negotiate a possible return of the lost soul.

The Metamorphosis into Halloween

When the Romans started gaining power, it didn’t take them long to take over the lands that belonged to the Celts. Part of this takeover involved forcing the people to celebrate Roman holidays and traditions. In the beginning, this involved an odd combination of Samhain and two Roman origin festivals (on October 31 they honored Feralia and on November 1, Pomona was honored).

As time passed (the Romans embraced the concept of Christianity.  Finally, during the 7th Century, Pope Boniface IV declared that instead of celebrating Pomona on November 1, the day was actually All Saints Day and anyone involved in the Roman Empire, including the Celts, many of whom still clung to traditional Celtic beliefs, including Samhain, were to use the day to pay homage to Christian martyrs and saints. In an attempt to appease both the Pope who’d been forced upon them and their traditions, the Celts started calling October 31  All-hallows Eve which was eventually shortened to Halloween.

Although there were always some who celebrated Halloween, it wasn’t until large groups of Irish immigrated to the United States that many of the traditions that dated all the way back to Samhain, such as telling fortunes, lighting bonfires, dunking for apples, and wearing costumes, became a routine part of the Halloween celebrations.

Resources:

Black, Susa Morgan. “Deeper Into Samhain.” The Druid Way, The Order of Bards, Ovates, & Druids, www.druidry.org/druid-way/teaching-and-practice/druid-festivals/samhain/deeper-samhain.

The History of Halloween. The Horror Zine, www.thehorrorzine.com/Odd/October/HistoryOfHalloween.html

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