Celebrating Halloween’s Celtic Roots

By Kelly Haugh

For Americans, Halloween is a time of candy, costumes and pumpkin carving, but many of the things we associate with the holiday date back to an ancient Celtic festival and a fear of the ghouls that were said to be able to walk the Earth on this one night a year.

The Celts lived some 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and parts of France.  Samhain (pronounced sow-in), the predecessor of Halloween, was their most important holiday and marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of winter.  According to the Library of Congress, the Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, “the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld.”

During the festival of Samhain, people gathered together to make sacrifices to the Celtic deities.  They also lit fires to honor the dead and guide them on their journey, and to help ward away the evil spirits.

Although Samhain was a celebration, it was also a time of fear.  The Celts were afraid of the evil spirits that they believed also roamed the Earth during this spiritually charged time, and they also feared possibly running afoul of the dead.  Because of this, they hid behind costumes, which were supposedly made from animal heads and skins.  These costumes were meant to fool the spirits into thinking they were one of them, and it also hid their identity to keep any spirit they’d known in life from seeking revenge.

This Celtic custom of wearing costumes evolved over the centuries as, with Christian influence, the spirits and supernatural beings walking the earth on Samhain became viewed as more evil.  People began to dress as these evil beings like witches and demons to blend in and protect themselves, which influenced what are still considered traditional Halloween costumes.  Every Halloween, the dead do walk the streets as kids and adults alike disguise themselves as ghouls and gruesome creatures, just as these ancient people did.

Trick-or-treating can also be traced to the Celts.  With all the spirits and supernatural beings roaming around during Samhain, the Celts would try to buy their favor by leaving out offerings of treats and drinks.

Even the jack-o’-lantern, a Halloween staple, is based on an ancient Irish myth.  According to the legend, a man named Jack made a deal with the devil but tricked the devil into agreeing not to take his soul.  But when Jack died he was refused entry into Heaven because of his misdeeds and the devil, remembering his promise and Jack’s trickery, also refused to let him into Hell.  The devil sent Jack away into the dark to forever wander the Earth alone, with only a burning coal to light his way.

Jack put the coal into a hollowed out turnip to use as a lantern, and thus the jack-o’-lantern was born.  In Ireland and Scotland, it became tradition for people to carve scary faces into turnips or potatoes and put them in windows or near doors to scare away evil spirits, including the still-wandering spirit of Jack.  When the Irish immigrated to America, they brought this tradition with them, moving from turnips to pumpkins which were plentiful.

Eventually, Christian missionaries attempted to put an end to the “pagan” Samhain and replace it with All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Day, on November 1.  However, many of the ancient Celtic traditions lived on and the evening before All Saints Day, known as All Hallows Eve, was still celebrated as a night of wandering dead.

This, obviously, would become what we now know as Halloween, which means we owe the Celts for all that candy, costumes and pumpkin carving we enjoy every October 31.

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