Samhain: The Celtic Roots of Halloween

Yes, it is Halloween! that time of year when our creepy and morbid tendencies rise from the grave to both terrify and illuminate our most unusual of holidays. That time of year when Zombies and Little Bo Peep mingle effortlessly together while dancing the night away, when kids dress as the type of miniature monsters that could possibly be living under their beds... Halloween is big business. It is a fun, colourful and a bizarre celebration of the darker side to our vivid collective imagination. And like every good party, it has a story behind it.

The Pre-Christian Worldview

The roots of Halloween can be found buried deep in the landscape of this island, in the magic hills dotted around the countryside and the sacred customs practised by our ancestors. It is intrinsically linked to Samhain, an important festival and one of the most significant periods in the cycle of life in Celtic Ireland. The story of Halloween is a wonderful coming together of the natural and supernatural world, an ancient celebration that developed into a worldwide phenomenon. To fully appreciate the importance of the Celtic Feast of Samhain it is important to be aware of how the native people of Ireland viewed their world.
Pre-Christian Ireland was a place where the process of producing written history had not yet developed. This was a period in Irish history when the oral tradition of folklore was exceptionally prominent in local society. However, the lack of a written record does not shut us out from understanding some part of what occurred in Celtic Ireland. Indeed, we can use various parts of the early Irish sagas to piece together our picture of what life was possibly like for our ancestors.
Belief and Mythos
The people of the island held the supernatural race of the Tuatha Dé Danann in the highest esteem. They were linked heavily to the return of the seasons and worshipped as divine in order to appease them, which in turn would bring a healthy harvest of crops. The inhabitants found the divine spirit all around them in the natural world; items such as streams and hills were considered to contain a divine presence.
This was an Ireland that had a mystical religious system; it was a system that was deeply integrated into the social and political fabric of their society. This deeply mystical religion impacted on all aspects of life in Ireland, from the highest king to most common person, and the ancient oral traditions were held in the highest esteem. The Celtic people of Ireland strongly believed that the Tuatha Dé Danann and the humans shared the land. However, while the human race lived on the land, the Tuatha Dé Danann moved deep underground in the síthe, the hollow hills and megalithic sites throughout the country. 
The Celtic people in Ireland had a clear understanding of where the Tuatha Dé Danann could be found; they felt their presence all around them in the natural world. It is important to remember that this was a completely rural society, a poor harvest of crops could prove to be disastrous for the people. Bearing this in mind, it is quite understandable that they would put such a strong emphasis on the natural world that held the keys to their survival. 
The Tuatha Dé Danann had power over the fertility of the land, the life and blood of the people. These supernatural beings could cause bountiful or devastating harvests; they had power over beasts and could bring about disease or prosperity. In such a world, fear was the overriding emotion and what we might consider mere superstition was, in fact, of utmost importance. The native people needed to acknowledge the power of the Tuatha Dé Danann; they made offerings by pouring milk on the ground and placing a specially prepared cake outside during Samhain.
At this time, various groups of people in masks, straw suits and other disguises went from household to household collecting numerous items such as money and loaves of fresh bread. Indeed, households were expected to give whatever they could afford. Not surprisingly, the more one gave determined how prosperous one could hope to be during the year and, of course, the less one gave the more misfortune one could expect to suffer.
The Night of Tricks
Oíche Samhain was called Oíche na gCleas, the Night of Tricks. One such trick involved removing the gates or boundary marks from various properties in the local area. This allowed people and animals the opportunity to wander freely between places that had at one time been distinct and separate. This is a strong symbol of the disappearance of the normal barriers between the physical world and the world of the Tuatha Dé Danann. A night when the world of the living and the world of the dead were no longer clearly marked. It was a night when the living were fully aware of the presence of the supernatural within their world.
The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain marked the boundary between summer and winter, between light and darkness and between the living and the dead. It was a brief window when the standard order of their world was suspended. The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year travelled into the otherworld. 
People gathered to sacrifice animals and to feast on the harvest of fruits and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honour of the dead, to aid them on their journey and to keep them away from the living. On that day all manner of beings roamed free: ghosts, fairies, and demons – all part of the dark and dread. The stories of Samhain from within Celtic culture highlight the fundamental idea behind the modern day concept of Halloween – the incursion of the otherworld in the affairs of the living.
Behind the Mask
The wearing of costumes and roaming from door to door demanding treats can be traced to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of the Christian era, when it was thought that the souls of the dead were out and about, along with fairies, witches, and demons. Offerings of food and drink were left out to placate them. 
Wearing masks and sometimes costumes was a way to confuse and blend in with all the spirits roaming the land on that night. 
As the centuries wore on, more people began dressing like these creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This practice is called mumming, from which the practice of trick-or-treating evolved. Halloween also retains some features that hark back to the original harvest holiday of Samhain. Halloween parties have long included the customs of bobbing for apples and carving vegetables, as well as the consumption of fruits, nuts and spiced cider associated with the day.
Christian Influence
As time went by, Christianity became the most dominant religion in Ireland. With this supremacy also came a policy of adoption and adaption of the popular native pagan rituals and feasts. Samhain was no exception and Masses for the dead were celebrated in early November.  
The Christian Church was highly successful in adapting native pagan customs into its world. For the most part, the new Christian message simply took something pagan and imparted something of Christian importance on it. An ancient tree or a sacred well would suddenly become a place of Christian worship and over time, the old use of the object would be forgotten. However, the beliefs associated with Samhain never truly died out. The period of Samhain was at a critical time of the year for the Celtic people, when the harvest was of utmost importance for the community. Samhain also contained powerful symbolism of the travelling dead. The belief that the dead could, for one night, be among the living was perhaps too fundamental to the human psyche to be satisfied with the new, more abstract Catholic feasts of honouring saints.
The powers that be recognised that something else had to be established to somehow deal with the raw emotion and energy of Samhain. November 2nd was established as All Souls' Day, a day when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead. During the Medieval period, the feast day of All Souls became one of the six days of obligation within the Christian Church and reaffirmed the collective claims that the dead had on the living, a belief that Samhain long embodied. Like Samhain, the feast of All Souls contained many acts intended to appease the spirits - food was left out for returning spirits and bonfires were lit to guide spirits on their way and also to ward off any malevolent spirits. 
The Christian All Hallows' Eve was quickly developing into a strange hybrid of the pagan festival of Samhain and the Christian feast of All Saints and All Souls. On that evening, the most intense activity took place between the human and the supernatural world. The people continued to celebrate the nomadic dead but the supernatural elements were now considered to be evil in composition.Subsequently, All Hallows' Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Halloween.
Hollywood and Halloween
If the ancient Celts were responsible for the feast of Samhain, then it is fair to suggest that the people of North America are largely responsible for the massive popularity of modern day Halloween. The worldwide image of this ancient festival is inextricably tied to Hollywood and the motion picture industry.
The now secularised concept of Halloween with its murderous monsters and psycho-killers is much more a Hollywood invention than a remnant of Celtic festivals. However,  a connection can clearly be seen - the idea of the dead returning as part of the cycle of ancient Celtic life has become the basis for movies focused on that one night of the year when the boundaries of the natural and supernatural worlds are taken away.


About the author: 

Shane Curtis is a freelance journalist with a wide range of interests. He has written on various topics, ranging from history to sport. Shane has a keen interest in ancient history and world religions, in particular the close links between the so-called ‘pagan’ world and modernity. [email protected]