A candlelit scene with pumpkins and dead branches

Samhain and the Irish History of Halloween

In Ireland, Irish Mythology by Leslie O'Malley1 Comment

While Halloween is a holiday celebrated all over the world today, the Irish take their celebration a little more seriously given the fact that the history of this spooky holiday is planted there.

Halloween was derived from Samhain (pronounced sow-wen), an ancient Gaelic festival that was known as a sort of Celtic new year.   The Celtic religion is devoted to the love of earth and once the annual crop was harvested, the Celts found themselves at the mercy of Winter. On the final day of the harvest in what represented the transition from Summer to Winter, the Celtics turned to their druid leaders for spiritual support. They believed that on this day, the boundary between the living and dead was so thin that the souls of the departed could roam the earth freely.   This enormously important day for the Celts became recognized as Samhain which means November in Gaelic.

According to the Celts, the Gods controlled the sun so in a ceremony praying for the return of the sun, they lit large bonfires to honor the Gods. To thank the earth for giving up its bounty in the form of the harvest, they offered animal sacrifices onto the bonfire. This was their way of giving back to the Gods and exhibiting their gratitude. Druid priests read the remains of the sacrificed animals much like tea leaves and used them to predict both the good fortune and bad luck of the villagers in the coming year. The stories of the prophecies interpreted by the druids were told well into the night in a fashion that resembles today’s telling of ghost stories on Halloween night.

The Celtics felt that not all the spirits who wandered the streets on Samhain were friendly.   In order to placate these spirits, the Celts brought offerings to the edge of their villages to lure the spirits away from their homes. They would leave food and sweets as gifts, which is what has evolved into what we know today as Trick or Treating. When they wandered from home on this night, the Celtics wore masks so that the spirits would think that they were one of them and would leave them alone.

This pagan holiday did not meet the approval of the Catholic Church who viewed the annual festival as evil. In protest, Pope Gregory assigned November 1st to be considered the Feast of All Saints, a day which honored every Christian saint. In spite of this, Celtics continued to practice their paganistic rituals on this day, also known as All Hallows Day or the day of the holy.   Given that the heaviest activity both celebratory and supernatural was on the evening prior, the name All Hallows Evening became the day of celebration and what is known in present day as Halloween.

In modern day Ireland, Samhain is still celebrated in a manner that echoes the ritualistic nature of its origin while natives feast upon traditional Halloween cuisine. Ireland also acknowledges the last Monday of October as a bank holiday in celebration of Halloween.

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  1. Sarah

    Thanks for the article. It is surprising how few people realise that Halloween comes from a Celtic festival. Just a note on the picture above, ancient Celts did not eat pumpkin or corn. They used to carve turnips. Google a picture of those!!!

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