Modern Halloween is secular and commercial, however the origins of traditions of All Hallow’s Eve that most of us enjoy today are owed to the Celts and the ancient festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-in).
One of four seasonal Celtic holidays, Samhain is a liminal time in which the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld are easier to cross. The Aos Si (pronounced ees shee) or fairy folk, wander our world seeking propitiation in the form of food and offerings for exchange for the well being of livestock. Mumming and guising were popular with Samhain practitioners, who would dress in supernatural costumes and go door-to-door singing or reciting verse in exchange for food. It is also thought that dressing as the Aos Si would confuse or otherwise ward them off on a night when the risk of being spirited away was especially high.
Impersonating the Aos Si gave rise to pranksters that carried lanterns made from hollowed out turnips and carved with grotesque faces. The lamps were variously said to either represent evil spirits, or to ward them off.
As autumn ended and winter began, the Celts honored their dead during Samhain by offering food, and placing candles in their windows in order to guide them back to their Earthly homes.
Traditions of Samhain included lighting a communal bonfire, from which each household would relight their extinguished hearths. Divination using apples, a Celtic symbol strongly associated with the Otherworld and immortality was widely practiced. Bobbing for apples, snap apple, and using apple peels to foretell the initials of your future spouse all owe their origins to the festival of Samhain.
By the 8th century B.C.E Pope Gregory III consolidated all local celebrations, and All Hallow’s was officially moved to November 1st, thus marking October 31st as All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween. The traditions of Samhain continued to be practiced uninterrupted by Celtic speaking people and Catholics while falling out of favor with Protestants after the reformation. The holiday wasn’t popularized in the New World until the 19th century, when Irish and Scottish immigrants fleeing famine, brought their traditions with them to the new world. By the beginning of the 20th Century, Halloween was celebrated by all types of people across the USA, and has continued on to become one of the most successful commercial holidays all over the world.
Some scholars maintain that All Hallow’s Eve is a Christian religious holiday devoid of any connection to the Celtic Samhain, however, it is the ancient Samhain traditions that have popularized the otherwise obscure Christian holy day. So this year, as ghouls and ghosties go door-to-door and participate in ancient traditions, spare a thought for the Celts and Samhain.