Samhain to Halloween and All the Inbetween


Keara Harp
kmharp@lc.edu

 

Halloween is well known across the United States as a holiday to dress up in costumes, have an excuse to eat gobs of candy, and visit terrifying haunted houses among a variety of other traditions. Many Americans have been known to decorate their homes with an array of jack o’lanterns, spider webs, gravestones, and much more.

A large number of people nowadays do not know how Halloween was started or why it was first celebrated. When approached on the topic, a twenty-three-year-old student commented, “Halloween is celebrated for dressing up in fun costumes and going trick or treating for candy.”

Halloween was originally an ancient Celtic celebration known as Samhain (pronounced sow-en); it meant “summer’s end” and began the new Celtic calendar year. Samhain was on November first, October thirty-first being Samhain Eve. The festivities took place on Samhain Eve as that is when they believed the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest.

Crops and cattle would be sacrificed in a large bonfire ceremony to give the gods and goddesses their share of the harvest as well as prepare for the new year. Costumes were worn as the Celts would dance around the fire to honor the dead that was allowed to rise from the Otherworld and hide from malevolent spirits that were said to crossover as well. As the veil was believed to be thinnest on Samhain Eve, Druidic Priests would attempt to predict the future at this time as well.

Samhain eventually transitioned into the modern holiday of Halloween when the Christian church attempted to Christianize the pagan celebration. Samhain became All Saints Day, a time to honor Christian saints and martyrs, and Samhain Eve became All Hallows Eve, the precursor to the name Halloween.

A number of the traditions that are commonplace in modern society have roots in the Samhain celebration though they have been commercialized over the years and have lost all connections to any religion. Jack o’lanterns guided the spirits of the dead, each candle lit signifying a spirit that was released to walk the earth. The costumes stemmed from the ceremonies around the bonfire. Many other traditions have had evolutions over time to create the loved holiday that is known today.

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