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Halloween and Samhain: A Brief History

If you grew up in the United States or any other westernized country, chances are you grew up celebrating Halloween. Many people don't know the origins of modern Halloween traditions, and some know just enough to be scared of them. We hope to ease some of those fears, learn ya a thing or two, and perhaps even create renewed interest in an old world tradition.

Halloween, also known as All Hallows Eve, began as the Celtic Pagan celebration of Samhain, (pronounced SOW-WIN). Samhain was a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or "darker half" of the year, and falls at the approximate midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. It is one of four yearly Pagan fire festivals, known as Greater Sabbats, which includes Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnassadh, and Samhain, with Samhain being arguably the most significant.

During this time of year, the hearth fires in each home would be allowed to burn out while the harvest was gathered. When the work was done, the hearth fires would be relit from the community bonfire. Cattle would also be slaughtered and sacrificed, to be part of the feast that would take place at sunset. This feast was meant to honor and commune with the ancestors and loved ones who had passed on.

It was thought that during this time, the “veil” between our world and the spirit world was at it’s most thin, and because of this, the spirits of the dead would return to Earth during Samhain. The Druids and Celts would dress in costumes to disguise themselves from these spirits, and the children of the village would play various games to entertain them, to prevent the spirits from getting bored and causing mischief. Ancient Scots and Celts would go door to door, singing songs for the dead and receiving small cakes as payment. These practices evolved into the modern Halloween traditions of donning costumes to go trick or treating on All Hallows Eve.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as All Saints Day day, in an effort to erase the Pagan fire festival from local culture by replacing it with a sort of Christian equivalent (though, let’s be honest, sounds BORING). This was not the first attempt to rebrand Samhain as a Christian celebration, but it was the most successful. All Hallows Eve was constructed on the 31st of October every year, in order to hold onto some of those pagan roots. Scot and Irish immigrants brought these traditions to the United States, and this gave the Halloween celebrations we know today.

With the growing popularity of Wicca in the 1980s, a revival of traditional Samhain pagan practices began. Wiccan celebrations of Samhain tend to incorporate old world traditions as well as modern Halloween fun. Bonfires, feasts, costumes, and altars to honor the dead seem ubiquitous with in these celebrations.

While we may not be celebrating Samhain in the old way anymore, it is truly fascinating how many cultures have some version of this holiday, during this time of year. No matter what you believe, the changing of the seasons, the harvest, honoring our loved ones that have passed, and our community at large, are all worthy of commemorations.

And anyway, who doesn’t love a good excuse for a party?


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