Halloween’s ancient origins: Celtic holiday of Samhain

Simple practices at the ancient Samhain festivals continue to exist in familiar forms in the Halloween festivities practiced 3,000 or more years later!

Halloween - Universal Orlando - Image Jacquie Kubin - All Rights Reserved
Halloween - Universal Orlando - Image Jacquie Kubin - All Rights Reserved

SAN JOSE, October 30, 2015 — This Saturday, October 31st, will be Halloween, and basically sane people all across the nation will do highly unusual things, like putting on scary masks or dreadful makeup with costumes in masquerade, or like completely transforming their homes into haunts or havens for ghouls and goblins of all sorts that will come to visit on this day, or tread on foot substantial distances around their nearby communities to actually send their kids out begging to their neighbors’ doors. People seldom question such annual rituals; they just do them, and sometimes really do the rituals up in an elaborate manner.

Year after year this ritual is repeated, yet it is true that only a few stalwart souls question how this all got started. It is a great question, unfortunately answers are often vague or unsatisfying. The truth is that there are several theories about the origins of Halloween, but few tangible facts.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of hard proof, it does not stop the brave from developing theories of how Halloween originated.

Christopher Columbus: A different sort of narrative

Developing over thousands of years, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact starting point for the more modern traditions of the holiday. Yet, one way historians or archaeologists develop their theories about ancient peoples is by using common or familiar reference points in human cultures. In that manner it is possible to gain a bit better understanding of the origins of Halloween by using some familiar points of reference, especially using known historical events or specific human nature in certain cultures to develop possible explanations.

One popular perception today is that Halloween “evolved” from an ancient people in Ireland thousands of years ago. One of the four ancient Celtic holidays called Samhain (Sa-wain, Sah-ween, or Sah-win – depending on Irish or Gaelic pronunciations) is more than likely the closest holiday connected to the ancient origins of Halloween.

Samhain can be translated as “November” in Irish, but more specifically means “summer’s end.”

While there is little knowledge to indicate how old such a celebration is, popular theory is that it was a simple harvest festival at the end of the summer months, a time when the people would collectively prepare for the arduous winter months ahead.

For a more realistic understanding of the preparation for winter in ancient Ireland, it is important to note that many early European writers considered Ireland as a land of ice and snow. In 1992, James Romm published The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thoughta exploring that ancient world..

Learned men considered Ireland the outer boundary of the civilized world, and apparently it was Julius Caesar who was the first to call Ireland by the name of “Hibernia,” which is Latin for “winterland.”

Later writers also portrayed the Emerald Isle as a land of ice and snow. This may have been a bit exaggerated due to lack of actual first-hand experience.

However, winter periods could last six full months.

Halloween celebrations around the world

It was in preparing for such months of bitter cold that the ancient people of Ireland would gather together at the end of the summer months and get ready for winter for the second half of the year, which could be quite harsh, as Ireland lies in more northern latitudes, similar to Canada.

Samhain was important, as it was quite likely that many who gathered would not be completely sure that they would survive the winter.

In this respect, Samhain takes on a more distinct significance within the harsh realities of life and death. Along with Beltane (celebrated on May 1st each year), these two were considered the most important Celtic holidays.

Based upon the limited archaeological evidence thus far, scholars estimate that the ancient Celtic people had likely originated in central Europe and then occupied the British Isles in some type of invasion around the sixth century B.C. However, more recent scholarship is attempting to explain the arrival of the Celts via some type of migration into the region.

Yet, it is not clear whether Samhain originated before or after such migrations. However, references to Samhain are found in some of the earliest Irish literature and the gatherings serve as a popular setting for different events in Irish mythology and folklore.

Specifically, like Beltane in spring, Samhain was understood as a time in which the boundary between the world of the living and the dead was extremely thin. One of the features of both Beltane and Samhain was the lighting of special bonfires, not only signal fires to gather people, but huge ritual bonfires. In some versions of the legends linked to these holidays, the fires would serve as gateways between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

The autumn festival especially included paying homage to those who had died in the past. In other variants of the tradition, the bonfires could be used as a means of guiding the spirits of the recent dead into the underworld (or Otherworld) where they truly belonged.

This essentially meant that the spirits of the dead (both those who had died ages before and those who recently died) could freely pass through the gateway as they wished. So, spirits of the dead already in the Otherworld, could come back and associate with the living – not good in all cases.

Coming back from the world of the dead did not always yield good outcomes. If the spirits from the underworld were mean or evil, the time of the spirit visitation could be most unfortunate for the living. Some spirits were reputed to readily play pranks or unleash mean tricks upon innocent living souls, or there would be cases of serious hauntings (people think zombies are a recent phenomenon).

One of the reasons that masks came into favor at such times was because people could disguise themselves as a means of protection from nasty ancestors or evil spirits. Some masks were simple and basically harmless – designed to disguise – while some masks were created to be quite scary – to frighten the daylights out of people! For much the same reasons masks are worn today – sometimes serving dual purposes.

More practically, in some cases, records indicate that masks were used, or costumes employed, to go and beg for food as a way of surviving another six months or longer. It is likely that pride-filled parents, not wanting it known they were struggling, would send their disguised children to beg in the community.

Logically, since the Celtic people were preparing for survival during the bleak months, for those who had little stores for the winter, it would be a time of desperation. In times of failed harvests or tragedy with the flocks (such as in predators or sickness reducing the numbers of animals available as a food source), some families would be surely threatened with the likelihood of becoming the latest victims to enter the world of the dead.

These simple practices at Samhain repeated over and over developed into longstanding traditions. It is likely they had existed in Ireland for centuries, possibly thousands of years before the time St. Patrick walked the hills and valleys of the Emerald Isle, and likely that they were there when he went as a bishop, and they continue to exist in some similar form in the Halloween festivities around the world in this time – 3,000 or more years later!

Happy Halloween – 2015!

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.