Where does Halloween come from? The answer involves community bonfires, ritualized hospitality, and visits from the Otherworld.
We’ve talked about trick-or-treating and jack-o’-lanterns, so now let’s dive into the origins of the holiday itself!
Halloween comes from the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”). It is observed on October 31–November 1, the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. It marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “dark half” of the year. Samhain was a liminal celebration, a time of transition between summer and winter, light and darkness—a time when “the normal order of the universe is suspended” (Rogers, 2002). The liminality during Samhain meant that the lines between the spirit world and the physical world began to dissolve for a night. Monsters, gods, spirits, fairies called Sidhs, and ancestors might cross over from the Otherworld into the human world. Spirits and fairies played tricks on mortals, and the night was one of supernatural intensity.
The holiday included such festivities as feasting, guising or mumming, divination, sacrifices, and a bonfire. Rituals mediated the sublimation between the supernatural and natural world but also displayed the values of hospitality, caring for the poor, and celebrating the cycle of death and rebirth.
During Samhain, people disguised themselves from the spirits that roamed the night and avoid becoming the target of their tricks. The best way to do that was to wear masks and dress in animal skins to blend in with the supernatural beings, to become a ghost or a fairy for the night.
Guising or mumming was a precursor to modern trick-or-treating. In this tradition, young people dressed in disguises visited houses in their village and played tricks, danced, and performed until the occupant guessed their identity and gave them food. As a type of ritualized hospitality, guising appeased the homeowners’ ancestors and blessed the house to be free from the mischief of the real spirits that were thought to roam the night.
On Samhain, households allowed their fireplaces to burn out while the harvest was gathered. Then, Druid priests started a community bonfire at the top of a hill using a wheel to cause friction and spark flames. The round wheel and the resulting light of the bonfire represented the sun, which was now retreating in the shorter days of winter. The pillar of smoke wafting up from the fire represented the axis mundi, the world pillar that connects heaven, earth, and the underworld. The fire itself protected the village from sinister spirits and Sidhs. Each person took a flame from the communal bonfire to re-light the hearth in their home, bringing the light and protection and warmth of community back to their own dwellings.
Sacrifices were also an important aspect of Samhain. People sacrificed animals that would not survive the cold months ahead to satisfy the spirits and also laid food as an offering at their ancestors’ graves. The poor in the community, who represented these ancestors, would gather in the cemetery and eat the offering.
Various divination practices and games provided both entertainment and somber predictions about death, marriage, and life. Some sought out wise women to prophesy about the year ahead. Some placed stones around the bonfire that represented people; those people ran around in a circle with torches, and in the morning, if a person’s stone was out of place, it signified imminent death. Other divination rituals involved using food like apples, hazelnuts, or oatmeal to predict one’s future or even the name of one’s true love. One divination trick involved hiding items in a cake, and a person’s future was signified by whatever they found in their portion of cake, such as a coin for wealth or a ring for marriage.
When Rome conquered the Celts in the first century CE, they introduced their own traditions into Samhain. These included Feralia, a public festival honoring the dead, and the feast of Pomona, which celebrated the first apple harvest of the year in honor of the goddess of the harvest.
Starting in the fifth century CE, as Christianity began to grow in areas that were once pagan, church leaders began to reframe Samhain as a Christian celebration, in a display of cultural adaptation we’ve also seen in Christmas and Easter traditions.
In the seventh century, Pope Boniface cast it as a day to celebrate Christian saints and martyrs and moved the date to May 13. This didn’t stop anyone from continuing to build communal bonfires in the fall.
A century later, Pope Gregory moved the date of the celebration back to the fall. The night of October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve (“hallow” referring to a saint or holy person). Hallowe’en (“a holy evening”), as it was later called, became an evening vigil where families visit the graves of loved ones to pray and leave flowers and candles. Some also bring with them a feast, including their dearly departed ones’ favorite foods. Gregory also declared that November 1 would now be a feast day called All Saints Day. This day is an opportunity to remember all the known and unknown saints and martyrs throughout Christian history. In the tenth century, Abbot Odela of the Cluny Monastery designated November 2 as All Souls Day to honor not just saints but all Christians who had passed on. Catholics and Anglicans today consider All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day to be holy days to remind themselves to live as the saints and then to ask for God’s mercy for all souls. Throughout November, a Book of the Dead is placed near the altar in the church for parishioners to write the names of the dead they wish to be remembered.
Even though Christian celebrations began to take hold, Pope Gregory’s declaration didn’t stop pagan traditions—people continued to celebrate the harvest, the seasons, the supernatural encounters, the sharing of light during the beginning of the darkest time of the year. By the end of the Middle Ages, the merging of the sacred and the secular produced a richly textured mix of meanings and traditions, all centered around the connection between the mortal world and the world of spirits.
Hundreds of years later, the Irish had spread them to other countries in Europe and brought them across the Atlantic to America. The Reformation in Europe had led to the prohibition of All Hallows Eve among Protestants, but Halloween persisted as a secular holiday. The Puritan tendencies of early America prohibited Halloween there as well. But the influx of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century brought the widespread celebration of Halloween in conjunction with existing harvest celebrations and fall festivities. The cultural amalgamation of Celtic, Roman, Christian, American, and likely other traditions has produced the Halloween we know today—a night full of costumes, mischief, tricks and treats, apple bobbing, and fall festivities, all of which have ties back to the rituals of Samhain.
@_soul_stice, Instagram post, October 19, 2021.
Crain, Alex. “All Saints’ Day – The Meaning and History Behind the November 1st Holiday.” Christianity, October 29, 2021. https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/all-saints-day-november-1.html.
Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World. “Origins in Samhain.” Brown University. https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/13things/7448.html.
History.com editors. “Samhain.” History.com, October 19, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/samhain.
Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. (Oxford University Press, 2002).
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Halloween.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Halloween.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Samhain.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Samhain.
Wikipedia. “Samhain.” Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain.