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  • Writer's pictureJeff King

Five Halloween Customs Dating Back to Ancient Celtic Traditions

As the darkest part of the year descends, many prepare to celebrate Halloween festivities or suffer from Samhainophobia and thus cower inside. Samhainophobia, the fear of Halloween, is a fear which can arise from any number of factors from a bad Halloween experience to flashbacks of Halloween horror films. Revelers, dive headlong into this annual celebration. But what does it all mean? Where did the mythology start?

The traditions of Halloween originated as Samhain, pronounced (sow – in), an ancient Celtic festival which began over 2,000 years ago. On the Julian calendar, the festival was the first and largest festival in the Celtic year. Falling on November 1, the celebration begins at nightfall the previous day, Oct 31.

Samhain literally means summer’s end. It is in recognition of the end of summer, harvesting of crops, and the winding down of daylight hours. Samhain seeks protection for the people, animals, and crops through the dead, dark days of winter and hopes for life, longevity, love, and bountiful crops in the new year. This celebration also encompasses the celebration of dead ancestors, the pairing of young couples and is an auspicious time for fertility.

Evidently, Samhain was not an occasion to worship evil. Rather it was a time to protect from evil. The Celts believe that on October 31, between dusk and midnight, the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, permitting spirits to leave the burial mounds, called sidhs (pronounced Sees), and roam the earth freely.

Each Oct 31, Samhain would begin, signalled by a large bonfire lit by the Druids, the Celtic Priests who trekked the 12 miles from the Royal Court at Tara to Tlachtga to begin this fire festival. The word bonfire is derived from ‘bone fire’ which was the offering of animal bones in the festival’s fire to appease the spirits, for the spirits were known to wreak havoc on this night. In order to ward off evil, honour their ancestors, foretell the coming year, the Celts engaged in a number of rites which we see the remnants of in modern day North American Halloween celebrations.

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

Jack O’Lanterns

Perhaps the most recognizable feature of Halloween is the Jack O’Lantern which arose from the myth of blacksmith Jack who was a miser who cheated the devil out of his soul. Upon Jack’s death, his dastardly ways left him barred from heaven. The devil, who held his part of the bargain denied Jack entry into hell. Jack was left to wander the earth eternally in the dark. Begging for light, the devil tossed him a lump of lit coal which Jack placed in a carved turnip.

The Celts adopted the custom of lighting Jack O’Lanterns to keep evil spirits away from their doorstep and to help guide the spirits of their ancestors back to the sidhs. They would carve turnips, rutabagas, or potatoes and place a burning coal within for light.

After Irish immigrants brought their Samhain festivities to America during the 1800s, the tradition turned to pumpkins which are easier to carve, larger, and widely available in North America.

Food and Beverage

In preparation, the crops would be harvested and any remaining grain would be used to make mead and beer. These concoctions would be used during the festival given there was no refrigeration at the time and it would spoil otherwise.

The cattle would be called in from pasture and slaughtered for the coming winter. They would be used as offerings in the bonfire, served at the festival, and in the ceremonial dumb supper for dead relatives.

Photo by Robin Canfield on Unsplash

Costumes and Masks

Costumes disguising the Celts as evil spirits would provide a camouflage so they could move about on this darkest night without fear. Likewise, frightening masks served a similar purpose and lent a protective barrier between this world and the spirit world while visiting friends and neighbors.

Fortune Telling

Foretelling the coming year was strongly associated with the festival rituals. Bobbing for apples was popular and declared the first person to bite into an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year. Peeling an apple in one continuous strand and tossed over the shoulder was said to predict the unmarried maidens’ future husband as it would land on the floor in the shape of his first initial.

Trick or Treat

As the Celts traveled door to door visiting on Samhain, they would receive treats of apples or nuts. For those who were stingy in their offerings, they could expect pranks to be played on them. It was also customary to carry treats in the pocket to offer wandering souls along the way to protect against otherworldly pranks.

Sources and Bibliography

  • Gilroy, John. Tlachtga: Celtic Fire Festival. Pikefield Publications.

  • Mansky, Jackie. Halloween Owes Its Tricks and Treats to the Ancient Celtic New Year’s Eve. Smithsonian Magazine.

  • Markale, Jean. The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. Simon and Shuster Books.

  • Santino, Jack. Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances. Western States Folklore Society.

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