Looking back at Halloween's history, origins

Halloween, as we know it today, started out as an old Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween), the most important holiday in the Celtic year, according to Jack Santino of the American Folklore Center. Samhain was a festival of the dead. (rwpeary/Flickr)

Halloween, as we know it today, started out as an old Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween), the most important holiday in the Celtic year, according to Jack Santino of the American Folklore Center. Samhain was a festival of the dead.

The following historical information comes from Santino’s “The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows.”

The Celtic people believed the time of year in which the festival was celebrated, marking the beginning of winter, was a time when the souls of the dead passed to the otherworld. Ghosts, fairies and demons roamed the land on Samhain.

It was these people’s job to help these souls on their journey by offering sacrifices in the form of food and animals. They lit fires to make sure these souls were kept away from the living.  

The modern version of Samhain, what we know as Halloween, was created when Christian missionaries came to convert the Celtic people. The druids, a priestly group of Celtics, opposed the Christians and branded them evil devil worshipers. Ironically, the Christian missionaries gave the same name to the Celtics before Christianizing them.  

It didn’t take long before the Christian missionaries realized that their job would be almost impossible. The Celtic people continued to hold on to old Celtic traditions and beliefs despite being converted to Christianity. The missionaries couldn’t get rid of what they considered the pagan holiday of Samhain, but they would surely change it drastically.

Pope Gregory I issued a decree in 601 A.D. that instructed missionaries to use native traditions and beliefs instead of completely eradicating them. The result was a shift in timing of Christian holidays. The missionaries thought that if they timed their own holidays with those of native traditions, overturning those traditions and belief systems would be easier.

All Saints Day, when Christians honor all of the saints, was moved to Nov. 1: the same time of year when Samhain was celebrated. The missionaries hoped that the Celtic people would modify Samhain to honoring saints instead of the spirits of the dead.

It didn’t work, but it changed the Celtic religion forever. Though the Christians initially branded the souls of Samhain as evil and malicious, All Saints Day eventually became All Hallows Day. The day before was named All Hallows Eve, which eventually became Halloween.

People began setting out food and drink as gifts to ease the evil spirits and gain their favor. Dressed as impersonators of these spirits, people also went around accepting gifts in a practice called mumming.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that trick-or-treating and candy became popular for the day, according to candy expert Samira Kawash, who writes for The Atlantic. Candy makers eventually realized that Halloween was the perfect time to make money. Their product was small, easy to distribute and fun for kids, so eventually it became the trademark of the Halloween season, according to Kawash.

The old Celtic festival of Samhain is still the origin of many traditions of the Halloween season today. Although the holiday has become centered on costumes and candy, the souls of the dead continue to roam our neighborhoods year after year.   


Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.