You cannot look at the history of Halloween without first understanding that Halloween and the Pagan holiday Samhain are the same thing. Samhain is what started it all. It was the Church that converted Samhain into what they viewed to be an acceptable holiday known as Halloween.
Samhain began over 2,000 years ago as an ancient celebration of the Celtic tribes to herald in the New Year and bid the summer goodbye. Samhain literally translates into “Summers End”. The ancient Celts believed that the new year would officially begin on November 1st with the arrival of winter. To begin celebrating this New Year they would start the celebration on October 31st at sunset. This was the official beginning of Samhain.
As the sun set around the countryside the Celts would light huge bonfires that would light up the night sky. At this time all the locals would gather around the fires and begin to burn crops from their summers harvest. This was an offering to the God and Goddess to thank them for a bountiful summer and to hope for a winter that would not be too harsh.
Because the ancient Celts were heralding in a New Year it was also a time to celebrate life. They viewed a lifetime as a wheel. The ‘wheel of life’ they referred to it as. In essence there was a season for everything in their lives and all seasons should be celebrated from birth to death. They would dance around the fires and often wear costumes. They would wear costumes because they believed that at Samhain the veil between the two worlds was thinnest. It was a time for the dead to cross over from the living world to the world of death or vice versa. It was a time to remember the dead and honor them but many also feared the dead who might not be so nice. So they felt that wearing costumes somehow offered a bit more protection if an unfriendly dead entity wished to cross over into the living world for that night.
Samhain was a night of magic because the veil between the two worlds was at its thinnest on October 31st. It was a time for the priests to tell fortunes. It was a time of divination. The dead could be conversed with. Fortunes could be told. Prophecies spoken.
As the night came to a close everyone from the village would take embers from the huge bonfires to return to their homes and light the home fire with. As long as they kept the home fires burning then winter would be okay but if the fires went out then tragedy might befall the family.
Finally times would change as Rome conquered the world. The Church came into the lands of the Celts and they did not approve of what they saw as ‘pagan’ festivals so they began to device ways to Christianize the various pagan activities. The first thing they focused on was Samhain. Pope Boniface IV declared that November 1st would be All Saints Day. A day to celebrate the Saints that had passed before and that October 31st would be All Hallows Eve which was an evening to begin preparations to honor the Saints. This eventually got changed into simply Halloween. Finally the Church just began to call both days simply Hallowmas. They would allow bonfires, parades, feasting, cookies and cakes would be made and given away, and the people were allowed to dress up in costumes to depict the Saints they would be honoring. This pleased the Church and also managed to appease the Pagans. The Church felt that they were doing their part to convert the pagans and the pagans felt that they could still hold on to some of their traditions.
In this way our modern day Halloween was truly born. But still today if you visit Scotland and Ireland during Samhain you will see the countryside alight with bonfires because even though the Church tried to change the Celts the traditions still live on by their descendent’s even today. And for those who honor their heritage it remains simply Samhain, a time of magic when this world and the next join, a time to celebrate the changing of seasons, a time to honor the dead, and to honor the arrival of the New Year.
Sources for this article,
The Ancient Celtic Festivals: And How We Celebrate Them Today by Clare Walker Leslie and Frank E. Gercace