What is Halloween? – Ancient Origins and Festivities for the Dark Half of the Year! – Part 1

Samhain- Celtic New Year’s Festival of the Dead


Hello my fellow readers, new and old, the Whisperer is back to tell you all about his favorite time of year as we slowly approach a certain date on the calendar. The nights are getting longer and colder, the leaves have changed into beautiful shades of red, orange, yellow and brown as they fall effortlessly from trees and the smell of pumpkins is everywhere (from pumpkin bread and pies to the famous Starbucks pumpkin lattes there is much to celebrate about this fruit (its not a vegetable)…but we will get back to them in a bit, I promise!).

To start off with Halloween is in fact the Whisperer’s favorite holiday! I love the masquerade side of Halloween and the decorations and treats and all of the fun and dark elements that are mixed together to create what we know of Halloween today as an American holiday. But then again what is Halloween really? How did it come to be? Why do we do the things we do at this time of year such as carving jack o’lanterns, putting up images of ghosts and witches and going trick or treating on the night of  October 31st?

There is certainly more to this day, and other fall and harvest-related festivals that take place around this time of year that many people may not know about. For certain though, despite popular misconceptions, it is NOT the “Devil’s Holiday” nor does it have anything to do with Satanism. Like many of the major holidays with Christian traditions, such as Christmas and Easter, Halloween has pagan roots that dealt with nature worship and veneration for departed ancestors (So yes the Christmas tree put up every year has ancient Norse origins before it became a Christian symbol, surprise, surprise!). So gather around the hearth fire my dearies and let’s go on a very brief and concise journey through time to learn about some of these holidays and their probable origins. The rest you can research in your good free time!

So, Halloween. Many scholars, historians and folklorists from around the world have agreed that the main predecessor to Halloween was  an ancient pre-Christian festival celebrated in Ireland known as Samhain (meaning roughly in Gaelic, the native language of the people of Ireland, “the end of summer”). It was a time celebrated by the tribal people known as the Celts at the end of their harvest season, bringing in crops and animals from the fields for the coming winter and one of four major “fire festivals” to mark major transitions in the seasonal year, in this case from summer to winter. Tribes came together to discuss business and politics as well as for feasting and remembering their departed ancestors as they prepared for the harshest season  ahead where death could be knocking at anyone’s door.

Pictured below is a contemporary Samhain gathering at the Hill of Ward in County Meath (Tlachta in Gaelic) in Ireland where Samhain was allegedly started and now is home to the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival!. Halloween is still celebrated as Samhain by many Neo-Pagan, Wiccan and modern-day Druid faiths and groups, harkening back to our ancient past by incorporating elements of a harvest festival and a time to honor the dead. It one of the most important holidays in the “Wheel of the Year“, splitting the seasonal year into eight equal parts, each with its own unique name, stemming from Celtic and northern European/Germanic festivals of the past.

Hill of Ward Halloween/Samhain Celebration

The Celts believed in a universal duality seen in nature and so split their “calendar” year into the “light” (Summer) and “dark” (Winter) halves of the year and Samhain, the beginning of their winter, was also the Celtic New Year’s festival. As it was believed to be a “time outside time” between one year and the next, people thought this created a portal and that the spirits of the dead, gods and fairies could come into our world, and likewise we into theirs and interact with the living, emerging from the mounds of ancient tombs, built long before the time of the Celts, that were later called fairy or “Sidhe” mounds seen across Ireland today (pictured below right). People looked to their priestly caste called the Druids for guidance as it was a great time for divination and communion with the dead in order to discover the health and well-being of the entire community and in some respects this group could connect our association with witches and magic makers with Halloween.

Bonfires were lit across the hills of ancient Ireland, starting from the Hill of Tlachta to the political site of the Irish kings at the Hill of Tara to surrounding areas. People would extinguish their own hearth fires and leave out food and beverages outside their home for wandering spirits to “consume”. They would then attend communal bonfires and festivities for three days and take a bit of the smoldering fire and bring it back to their homes, when the festival ended, to relight their own fires thus ensuring health and prosperity for their families in the New Year.  These bonfires served a dual purpose, so it is believed, to both welcome the kindly spirits of ancestors as well as to frighten away unwanted spirits (not demons as that is a Judeo-Christian belief!) who could possess or do harm to the living as well as to their livestock and crops (Remember that this was an agrarian society so a majority of their lifestyles depended upon working and living off the land so any blight or foul weather meant the community could be at risk. These issues were usually  blamed upon ghosts and earthly and otherworldly spirits, so people tried to best to appease them so as not to incur their anger). With all of these elements put together (e.g. ghosts, magic, fire, darkness and the night) we have the basic ingredients for Halloween.

(Sidhe) Fairy Mound

Later when Europe and the British Isles (the latter where Halloween was celebrated in Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom as well as in Brittany in northern France) were being converted to Christianity in the early Medieval period, the Catholic Church decided not to abolish old pagan holidays altogether but to instead allow people to continue celebrating their traditions but now as worshipers of the Christian God. During the Middle Ages, the Church tried to incorporate “Samhain” and other pagan festivals together by giving people days to honor their dead but now as Christians. All Saints’ Day, a holy day to honor early Christian martyrs without a feast day of their own, was created to counteract pagan worship and came as a result of the re-commemoration of the Pantheon temple in Rome as the  “Church of St Mary and the Martyrs” by Pope Boniface IV.  Early Christians  first tried to “de-paganize” an ancient Roman festival of the dead called Lemuria around May 13 and so this date was set aside as “All Saints’ Day” .  Later the date of All Saints’ Day  was moved to November 1st by  Pope Gregory III to “de-paganize” the Gaelic festival of Samhain. It was Pope Gregory IV that extended this feast day to all of the Christian world at that time. This was the first step to create a Christian festival of the dead. Centuries later All Souls’ Day, to commemorate all people who have passed away, was then placed on November 2nd, after All Saints Day.

In old English, the word for “saint” was also “hallow” and so All Saints Day was known as All Hallows Day. The day before was then called “All Hallows’ Evening” or “All Hallows’ Eve”, the date formerly known as Samhain to the ancient and medieval people of Ireland.  Over time, especially with Scottish influence, this became shortened to “Hallowe’en” and soon became the day we all know today…Halloween. All three days were put together as a triumvirate, akin to the three days Samhain was supposed to be celebrated over, and it became known as “All Hallowstide” or “Hallowmas” by the Catholic Church. So we have the medieval Christians to thank for giving this holiday its modern name!


The Day of the Dead and Bonfire Night

Other holidays similar to Samhain and Hallowmas came into being later on. For instance,  in Mexico to this day people remember their dearly departed loved ones during the Days of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos), a  holiday mixing together ancient indigenous and Spanish Catholic traditions that takes place from October 31st to November 2nd, the dates of All Hallowstide in Europe. More on this wonderful holiday later…

“Across the pond” on November 5th, people all across England will be celebrating Bonfire Night, commemorating the night back in 1605 when the plot to blow up the Protestant-run House of Lords in Parliament  by Guy Fawkes and his Catholic conspirators was foiled. Originally this holiday was predominantly an anti-Catholic one, with the heated tension between these two Christian traditions, but has now become a secular holiday for the whole family to celebrate out of doors on the night of. This holiday indeed incorporated some elements of Halloween and Samhain from around this time such as the prominent bonfires and begging traditions, however there is no concrete link to support this as people in England celebrate Bonfire Night to commemorate a one-time historical event- that of a failed political plot.

Our British compatriots enjoy eating toffee (caramel) apples, drinking mulled wine and watching elaborate fireworks (pictured left in London) and bonfire displays. One of the largest events takes place in Lewes, England (pictured above center and right) with various communities dressing up in costume, parading down the street with lit torches and setting on fire an effigy of Guy Fawkes, just like children had been doing years and years before asking for money shouting  “a penny for the guy” in order to buy firewood and materials to light bonfires and make Guy Fawkes effigies.  Most people outside of the UK know about Guy Fawkes thanks to the comic book series and movie “V for Vendetta”, but do know that Bonfire Night is quite popular in England and people love it just as much as we do for Halloween here in the States.


Guy Fawkes Effigy

London Fireworks Display for Bonfire Night


Annual Lewes Bonfire Night Parade


All of these holidays that are shown here, from Samhain and Hallowmas to Dia de los Muertos and Bonfire Night are unique in their own right but they do share some similarities: festive occasions occurring at the end of autumn and the harvest season, a time and place to remember the dead who return to visit the living and the lighting of many, mostly bonfires, fireworks, candles and jack o’lanterns, that are and were used for multiple reasons.


Samhain Bonfire

Tune in next time to hear more about the story of Halloween and other dark holidays from time of the Celts into the present day,  don’t fly off your broomstick yet!