Evolution of Halloween: History & legends page 1
Over 2,000 years ago the Celtics in France and the British Isles followed a
calendar that began November 1st and ended with a festival on October 31st
called Samhain (pronounced Sow-in). Samhain means “Summer’s end” and it
marked the “death” of the old year and the birth of the new one. During this
time the Celts believed the invisible barrier between the worlds of the living
and the dead was the thinned to the point the living and dead could contact
The Celts believed the spirits of those who died during the year were
confined in the bodies of animals and only on Samhain would a diety known as
the Lord of the Dead gather the spirits and set them free to begin their
journey to the Celtic Underworld of Tirna-n’Og. On Samhain, with the barrier
between worlds so thin, a spirit who was homesick could enter the mortal
world to return home and visit loved ones left behind. To welcome the spirits,
families prepared offerings of food and drink and lit bonfires to help guide
In Ireland, the Druids, who were the caste of priests, performed animal and
human sacrifices on the eve of Samhain. These sacrifices were done to
appease the Lord of the Dead and allowed priests to see omens of the future.
Cats were a common animal chosen for the sacrifices. Cats were believed to
be one time humans who were turned to cat form as punishment for evil
Because many of the spirits returning to earth on the eve of Nov 1st were
evil, the priets performing the sacred rites of Samhain would wear white
robes and masks to disguise themselves. They felt this would trick the evil
spirits into thinking they were also spirits, not mortals, thus leaving them
alone. Following suit, the rest of the community would likewise dress as
spirits to avoid being dragged into the spirit world.
Samhain was an important time to interpret omens because the season
provided a special psychic climate. Predicting the future provided a sense of
control to the community who was facing the coming long dark winter with it’s
unknown challenges. The priests would interpret the omens by studying the
sounds, smells, smoke, color of the fire, etc that occurred during the
sacrifices of animals and humans.
With the heightened spiritual energy abound on Halloween, many divination
practices evolved. Throughout Northern Europe, many marriage divinations
were performed by young men and women who wished to know their future
love lives. In England, a tradition called Apple Snapping was practiced by the
single people in the community. This was played by partially inserting a coin
into an apple that is hung from the ceiling by a string. Then two people at a
time try to pull the coin out of the apple using only their teeth. The one who is
gets the coin is said to be the next to marry.
The Celts in Ireland believed that on Samhain a race of goblin-like creatures
with occult powers would be free to roam and pillage the land. These
creatures were sinister looking with dark green skin. Celts would leave
offerings of food outside their doors at night on Samhain to appease these
creatures and avert property damage and theft of food and livestock that
would otherwise occur.
Samhain was a powerful night for fairies. There were hundreds of different
types of fairies in the Celtic lands and on Samhain fairy mounds would open and
fairies, mostly evil ones, would be free to walk the earth and do mischief. On
this night it was even possible for fairies to pull unsuspecting humans who
walked over the mounds, down into the world of the fairies where they would
Charms were developed to protect oneself from the fairies. Iron horseshoes
were commonly hung above doorways to keep the spiteful fairies at bay. Still
today iron is used in the making of magical amulets for protection and of
course horse shoes are still hung over door ways of the superstitious. Another
way to ward off fairies is the ringing of bells, especially church bells.
In addition to fairies, the Pooka (phooka) was another creature that was
feared in Ireland. This supernatural creature could shape shift and usually
choose the form of a black horse with hideous features. Farmers had to
gather all their crops before October 31st because whatever was left would
either be destroyed or contaminated by the Pooka.
In the 1st Centruy B.C. the Romans invaded Britain and Gaul (present day
France). The Roman Emperor Claudius Caesar outlawed the Druids religion and
the sacrificial rites associated with Samhain. The Island of Anglesey (
present day Wales) which was the center of Druidic practice saw a bloody
massacre where the Romans slaughtered the Druids and burned their sacred
oak groves. History books claim that all Druids were killed, but many believe
some escaped and still practice today.
Romans Influenced Halloween in Northern Europe
Following the Roman invasion of Northern Europe and the outlawing of Druid
practices, the introduction of Roman festivals occurred across the lands. The
Romans had their own festival that honored the spirits of the dead. This was
celebrated on February 21st by reciting special prayers and leaving offerings
on graves. In November the Romans also had a festival to honor the Goddess
Pomona who presided over orchards and gardens. It was over the next four
centuries that several of these customs of the Romans merged with those of
the native peoples’ Samhain.
In the 4th Century A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity
to be the lawful religion of the land. In doing this he launched a holy war on
Paganism and all the rites and symbols associated with it. The Christians
feared the old Celtic beliefs and thought the Celtic underworld was Hell and
the Celtic Lord of the Dead was the Devil. The Christians used mostly violent
means to abolish the “evil” practices of the Celts, but they also sought to
convert and pagans to Christianity and to Christianize the practices that they
still celebrated at Samhain. They did this by changing the names and meanings
of the old rites and symbols used in the pagan practices.
The 7th century saw Pope Boniface IV implement All Saints Day on May 13th
to honor God and all Christians who died for their belief. But later Gregory
III in the 10th century changed the day to November 1st in an attempt to
finally abolish the old Samhain festival of the dead. All Saints Day was also
called All Hallows’ Day and the day before, October 31st was called All Hallow’
s Eve. Over time this evolved into the word Hallowe’en ( later spelled
Halloween Brought To American by the Irish
In Ireland in the 1840s, the potato famine prompted over 700,000 Irish to
immigrate to the U.S. They brought their old Halloween customs of Jack-o-
lanterns, trick-or-treating (originally called guising), and performing love
divinations. But because pumpkins were more plentiful in the autumn in the U.
S., they adopted then in place of the turnips they used to use. This lead to the
pumpkin Jack-o-lantern we now know of today. The celebration of Halloween,
with its distinctively pagan roots caused controversy among many religious
groups in America during the 19th century. Overtime, however, the popularity
of Halloween continued to grow and outweighed all the efforts of the
Origin of Modern Halloween Practices
The modern tradition of trick-or-treating as we know it has its origins from
many different countries and traditions.
Origins of Modern Halloween From Scotland
In Medieval times in Northern England an Scotland a custom known as “souling”
evolved. “Souling” was a practice whereby the poor dressed up in masks and
costumes to disgusie their identities and went house to house to beg for food
in exchange for offering prayers for recently departed loved ones. Often the
food given was called “soul cakes” (oat cakes or bread with currants). The
church actually approved of this practice and made it a religious practice
because they saw it as a way to replace the old pagan customs. Over the
generations, however, this religious practice changed into nothing more than
children going door to door on Halloween night begging for apples and nuts in
exchange for singing songs.
In Scotland and still today a slightly different custom called “guising”
developed. Children dress up in costumes and go door to door to perform a
“trick”. These tricks usually involve telling jokes or singing songs in exchange
for a “treat”.
Origins of Modern Halloween From Ireland
Ireland also lends it roots to Halloween with it’s centuries old tradition of
appeasing to Muck Olla. This was a feared creature that if made unhappy
would punish the household with drought, famine or death. Homage to Muck
Olla was accomplished by a member of the community dressing up in a “Liar
Bhan“. This was a white robe and on the head was a mask shaped like a horse’s
head. The Lair Bhan would lead a procession from house to house collecting
money and food in exchange for the recitation of verses insisting that all good
fortune that befalls the home is due to the goodness of Muck Olla. The only
way to receive this good fortune was through donations to the Lair Bhan.
Origin of Modern Halloween Practices From Northern Europe
The Halloween practices that have played out in Northern Europe over the
centuries do differ from those that evolved in Latin American countries and
Spain and Italy. There is however, a common belief in these regions that the
end of October and beginning of November sees the doorway to the spirit
realm open. At this time the souls of departed ancestors are allowed to visit
their loved ones. Families will light firecrackers in front of their homes to
help the spirits find their way. In Santa Cruz, yellow marigold petals are
scattered from the loved ones’ grave sites to the door of their home. This
practice is believed to not only lead loved ones’ spirits home, but also ward off
Origin of Modern Halloween Practices From Mexico
Mexico celebrated the Festival of the Dead on November 1st which is a
national holiday dedicated to honor the dead. The celebration includes brightly
colored cakes and cookies many in shapes of skeletons and skulls. Families
spend the night at loved one’s grave sites lighting candles, singing songs, and
offering feasts of food to the spirits.
Rogers, N. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. 2003.
Markale, J. Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. 2001.
Morton, L. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. 2012.