Samhain – 8 facts about Halloween’s Celtic origins

Autumn is here and with it comes Halloween, a night of costumes, pumpkins, parties and often fireworks. Some holidays are clearly linked to different faiths or independence celebrations but what about Halloween? If you’ve ever wondered where this spooky day of trick or treating came from you’re in luck. 

Babylon has compiled a list of eight things that you probably didn’t know about Halloween’s Celtic predecessor, Samhain, to keep in mind as you enjoy this year’s festivities.

1. A supernatural evening for thousands of years

Long before there was Halloween, there was the annual festival of Samhain. This Celtic festival dates back to about 2,000 years ago. Samhain was believed to be a day when the world as we know it was most vulnerable to visitors from another realm where ghosts and spirits exist. “Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred,” according to History.com. People believed that in addition to harmful ghosts that may arrive into the world of man, family ancestors could visit the living and have a home-cooked meal waiting for them, known as “Dumb Supper” in the Middle Ages. 

2. Summer’s end, where darkness begins

On some Halloweens there’s a certain chill in the air, making autumn’s arrival undeniable, however Samhain was not a hallmark of the fall but rather a day that preceded the Celtic new year. The festival closed the door on summer and gave an eerie welcome to winter and its darker days. 

3. Costumes to scare more than just friends

Costumes were part of festivities since the start, not just in recent decades as Halloween has become increasingly commercialized. Individuals originally wore costumes to help repel ghosts and harmful spirits like kidnapping fairies. These outfits were made from animal furs and even heads

4. Flames beyond flickering jack o’lanterns

The occasion also featured a lot of fire. Bonfires were set, including by Celtic priests, known as Druids. These fires would help keep the bad spirits at bay, with the major Druid-built fires being used to put out and then relight fires in individual homes. 

Samhain
“Bonfire,” by English Wikipedia licensed under CC by 3.0, Cropped from original
5. Communicating with the unknown

The Celts also believed this time could provide a glimpse into the future with predictions from the previously mentioned Druids, which could be “an important source of comfort during the long, dark winter,” according to History.com. Marriage was one of the areas that these prophecies were often given in. 

6. Turnips not pumpkins

The festival marked the end of farming for the year, with some of the harvest being used as yet another mechanism against mischievous forces of the afterlife. Samhain saw people carve faces into turnips rather than pumpkins, today’s symbol of Halloween. Beets and potatoes were also skewered with some not so friendly faces. 

7. Samhain’s evolution into today’s holiday

Two of Rome’s festivals mixed with Samhain during the centuries that the empire controlled Celtic lands, according to History.com. One of the festivals was to honor the goddess of fruit trees, Pomona, which provides a possible explanation for the Halloween staple of bobbing for apples. Centuries later the Christian holiday of All Saint’s Day, otherwise known as All Hallows Day, was moved to November 1, which paved the way for All Hallows Eve or Halloween on the 31st of October. 

8. Halloween’s spread to North America

Halloween arrived in the United States around the 1840s as close to two million people escaped the Irish Potato Famine and immigrated into the country. The arrival came mere decades before the Civil War killed more than half a million soldiers in the United States. During this period there were some references to Halloween but no official celebration until 1921. The holiday has continued to explode in popularity in the States in the decades since. 

Halloween began as an ancient festival in the Celtic cultures and has spread to millions of people since. Today’s candy-filled festivities may be far removed from Samhain but the evening’s feeling remains the same – a night when maybe, just maybe, the mortal and supernatural worlds may collide. 

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Jacob Owens

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