The Festival of Samhain
Halloween’s origins can be found in the pagan festival of the dead, celebrated by the ancient Celtic peoples who lived throughout Europe.
The Celtic new year began on the first day of winter, a date that would later become November 1 on our modern calendar. The festival of Samhain (pronounced Sah-win) was held on October 31, the last day of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that during Samhain, the ghosts of the deceased walked the land, along with other supernatural beings including fairies and demons, and these creatures mingled with the living as they made their way to the otherworld.
The Celts lit bonfires to guide the dead on their final journey and to keep them at a distance from those still alive because they believed that the walking dead could cause crop failures and illness. They also sacrificed produce and animals to these deceased travelers.
Attempts to Co-opt Samhain
The Celts had a complicated religion, with a priesthood of Druids who were also scholars, scientists, and poets. Christian missionaries worked to convert the Celtic peoples to Christianity, dismissing the traditional Celtic rituals as satanic.
Anticipating how difficult it would be to alter entrenched cultural practices, Pope Gregory the First recommended that his missionaries simply modify them. As a result, the Celtic celebration of Alban Arthuan (the Winter Solstice) became Christmas. However, despite attempts to substitute the Christian All Saints’ day (November 1) for the Samhain celebration, the missionaries failed to completely eliminate the original Celtic beliefs, even after they resorted to accusing the Druids devil worship and their followers of witchcraft, and branded the Celtic gods as evil entities.
Many Celts maintained their beliefs in supernatural creatures, though these creatures devolved into the leprechauns and fairies that many still believe in today. The idea of the dead traveling to the otherworld on Samhain persisted, likely because its potent symbolism resonated with people in a way that abstract celebrations of saints did not.
The Christian church tried again to supplant Samhain, this time with the November 2 celebration of All Souls’ Day, a holiday on which the living were supposed to pray for the souls of the dead. But the Celtic customs continued, though they mutated into new forms.
All Hallows’ Eve and Trick-or-Treating
The Christian All Saints’ Day was also called All Hallows’ Eve, and although the Celts continued to believe that the dead walked the earth on this day, the supernatural beings who mingled with the living had been recast as purely evil entities. The Celts put out offerings of food and drink to appease these spirits, and All Hallows’ Eve was eventually shortened to become Hallowe’en.
Centuries later, people began impersonating the dead, donning costumes and seeking offerings of food and drink for themselves, sometimes engaging in entertaining antics to earn their rewards. This practice was originally known as “mumming,” and it likely contributed to the more recent custom of trick-or-treating. However, it is likely that the Celts wore costumes not only to obtain food and drink from their neighbours, but also to pass for the dead so that the deceased and any other supernatural lurkers would leave them alone.
The roots of trick-or-treating can also be traced to medieval “souling,” a practice adopted by the poor, who would knock on doors on All Saints’ Day (November 1) and receive gifts of food as an advance payment on their prayers for the dead the next day (All Souls’ Day).
In later years, children in some parts of Scotland, Ireland, and England went out on All Hallows’ Eve in costumes to beg for treats, money, or other things, and homeowners who had nothing to offer would sometimes be the targets of pranks. This practice was later brought to the United States by immigrants from the UK.
Modern Hallowe’en Customs
Early trick-or-treaters in North America were usually small boys wearing crude costumes (typically a mask made from a bag or a face rendered unrecognizable with soot) who went from door to door begging and, in some cases, pranking. Modern trick-or-treaters wear more elaborate and varied costumes, and most focus solely on the treat aspect of trick-or-treating, though some homeowners are subjected to relatively harmless pranks such as egging windows or wrapping trees in toilet paper (there have been reports of more serious vandalism on Hallowe’en, but this is not very common).
Although it was primarily the Irish and Scottish who brought Hallowe’en customs to North America, these practices were widely adopted by others, which indicates their widespread appeal. People continue to don costumes and celebrate Hallowe’en, complete with a variety of the old traditions, including carving jack-o-lanterns (a custom that arose from the Celtic legend of Stingy Jack), wearing costumes, lighting bonfires, and offering food to the masked spirits who come to call. All of these Halloween symbols can be traced back to the original Celtic belief in a magical world where the realms of the living and the spirits converged on this special day.
For more on Halloween, see:
- Eveleth, R. (18 October 2012). The History of Trick Or Treating is Weirder Than You Thought. SmithsonianMag.com.
- HalloweenHistory.org. (2015).
- HalloweenMagazine.com. (2009). FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions.
- Santino, J. (2009). Halloween: The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows. The American Folklife Center.