The history of Halloween dates back to 5th century BC, to the Celtic celebration of the dead. A Celtic festival was held on November 1, the first day of the Celtic New Year. The holiday was called Samhain (sow-en).
The word is pronounced “sow-in”, with “sow” rhyming with “cow”. According to the Irish English dictionary, the word “Samhain” is the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, signalizing the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season, lasting till May. The word is known to be broken down to Sam + Fun, which means ‘end of summer’.
The end of summer was significant to the Celts because it meant the time of year when the structure of their lives changed drastically. The cattle were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills and the people were gathered into the houses for the long winter nights of storytelling and handicrafts.
The Celts had 3 harvests. Samhain was the final harvest of the year. Anything left on the vines or in the fields after this date was considered blasted by the fairies, or “pu’ka”, and unfit for human consumption. Fairies were imagined as particularly active at this season.
As far as the history of Halloween goes, on October 31st after the crops were all harvested and stored for the long winter the cooking fires in the homes would be extinguished. The Druids, the Celtic priests, would meet in the hilltop in the dark oak forest (oak trees were considered sacred). The Druids would light new fires and offer sacrifices of crops and animals. As they danced around the fires, the season of the sun passed and the season of darkness would begin.
When the morning arrived the Druids would give an ember from their fires to each family who would then take them home to start new cooking fires. These fires would keep the homes warm and free from evil spirits.
The Samhain festival would last for approximately 3 days. Many people would parade in costumes made from the skins and heads of their animals. The Celts did not have demons and devils in their belief system. The fairies, however, were often considered hostile and dangerous to humans because they were seen as being resentful of men taking over their lands. On this night, the fairies were thought of sometimes tricking humans into becoming lost in the fairy mounds, where they would be trapped forever.
So, an important question regarding the history of Halloween, is where did the word “Halloween” come from?
Much later down the timeline of the history of Halloween, a Christian feast day dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the martyrs was moved to November 1st from May 13th by the Roman Catholic Church in 835 AD in order to mark the dedication of the All Saints Chapel in Rome- establishing November 1st as ‘All Saints Day’ and October 31st as “All Hallow Even”, eventually “All Hallow’s Eve”, “Hallowe’en”, and then – “Halloween”.
When the potato crop in Ireland failed (around the 1840’s) many of the Irish people, modern day descendents of the Celts, immigrated to America , bringing with them their folk practices, which are the remnants of the Celtic festival observances. This migration had a great impact on the history of Halloween. The first lighted fruit was really carved out of gourds and turnips (just like in the folk tale). European custom also included carving scary faces into the gourds and placing embers inside to light them. This was believed to ward off evil spirits, especially spirits which roamed the streets and countryside during All Hallows Eve. Once coming to America , they quickly discovered that pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve.
There are those who believe that the Jack-o-lantern custom comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.
According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.
The spread of Christianity didn’t cause people forget their early customs. On the eve of All Hallows, Oct. 31, people continued to celebrate the festivals of Samhain and Pomona Day. Over the years, and throughout the history of Halloween, the customs from all these holidays mixed.
The tradition of bobbing for apples is also part of the history of Halloween and is known to have come about from the Roman’s Pomona Day. Romans honored the dead with a festival called Feralia in late October. It honored Pomona , their goddess of fruit trees who was often pictured wearing a crown of apples. During this festival, they ran races and played games to honor the “Apple Queen” and used omens such as apple parings thrown over the shoulder or nuts burned in the fire in order to predict the future concerning their marital prospects. When the Romans conquered the Celts, they combined local Samhain customs with their own pagan harvest festival. Bobbing for apples was derived from this blended pagan celebration.
The witch is a central symbol of Halloween and is identified with the holiday throughout the history of Halloween. The name comes from the Saxon wicca, meaning ‘wise one’. When setting out for a Sabbath, witches rubbed a sacred ointment onto their skin. This gave them a feeling of flying, and if they had been fasting they felt even giddier. Some witches rode on horseback, but poor witches went on foot and carried a broom or a pole to aid in vaulting over streams.
There you have it – the fascinating history of Halloween!