How the Pagan Festival of Samhain became Halloween
The origins of Halloween can be traced back to several different sources. One of the most prominent precursors to Halloween is the Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-en). This festival was celebrated starting on the night of October 31st through November 1st. It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the darkest part of the year in northern Europe. It was a time to take stock of food and prepare what needed to be prepared to get through winter.
One common custom on Samhain was to light a bonfire. This was a symbol of light to be carried with people as they made their way into the dark winter. It also may have been a symbol of cleansing and rejuvenation. Some historians believe that Samhain was a celebration of the new year, a time for a fresh start. The fire would have represented the bad parts of the old year burning away. All fires aside from the main bonfire were extinguished on this night, to be re-lit using the bonfire. This symbolized the period of darkness they were about to descend into, but the fires were re-lit to remind people that everything was going to be okay again and that the darkness would end. People used tree branches to bring fire from the main bonfire back to their homes, connecting them to everyone else in their community and cleansing their houses for a new year.
Another important belief was that the boundary between our world and the spiritual world was opened on Samhain, so that spirits could cross over. On this day, ghosts and fairies and other kinds of good and bad spirits roamed free on the Earth. When the old fires were extinguished evil spirits could do harm in the world, but after the fires were re-lit it was safe to allow the spirits of loved ones into the household. It was common for people to have feasts on this night, enjoying the bounty of their harvest. Spirits of dead loved ones were invited to join the feast, with places at the dinner table set for them should they return home. To appease the spirits people would leave the extra food from their dead loved one’s place settings outside for them in the hopes that the good spirits would help them make it through the long winter. To keep bad spirits away they were careful not do anything that might anger the spirits and they tried to stay close to home and go outside as little as possible.
Divination was an important part of the Samhain celebration as well. The connection with the spirit world meant that this was a great day to see predictions for the future. Many of the divination practices were about discovering who would die in the next year and who might be married. This could also be dangerous because learning the future meant running the risk of discovering your own death or coming face to face with the devil. Still it was common on this night for people to play divination games, often using food items such as fruit, nuts, and eggs to predict the future.
The Halloween tradition of going door to door to receive food is based on another old tradition from Samhain. People would often disguise themselves as spirits because they believed this would keep them safe from dark spirits. They would go door to door in costume and recite a verse, begging for food from their neighbors. Refusing to give food to a passing spirit could bring bad fortune onto a household, so the neighbors would give the people in costume something from their feast. Sometimes young people wearing costumes would use their disguise as a way to play pranks and cause mischief, leading to the “trick or treat” mentality of Halloween today.
When Christianity spread into Celtic communities All Saints Day began to be celebrated at the same time as Samhain to honor Christian saints. The two holidays merged together into something that more closely matches Halloween today. Irish immigrants brought this tradition into the United States, where it became more widely celebrated and eventually spread into much of the rest of the world.
Today Samhain in still celebrated by Wiccan and Pagan people all around the world. It the new year in those belief systems and a time to connect with loved ones who have passed away.