The Celtic Roots of Halloween

Posted on 27 October 2009

Celtic Cross

“From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!”


The traditional Scottish prayer is befitting on the day that we celebrate as Halloween.  The holiday has its roots in pre-Christian times and the culture of the Celts, a people occupying parts of what are now Great Britain and northern France.


The Celts, as did many peoples of the pre-Christian era, believed in many deities, foremost being the sun god.  A pastoral people, they established their calendar based upon climatic conditions that dictated changes in their way of life.  November 1st began their new year and winter season, a period following the harvesting of crops when cattle were brought back from summer pastures and society turned toward indoor craft-making activities.


On that day began a three-day festival, Samhain (pronounced sow-ween).  On the eve of Samhain, Celtic families would extinguish the fires in their homes and the priestly caste – the Druids – would light new fires, dance around them, and sacrifice animals to mark the passing of the season of the sun and the commencement of the season of darkness.  During the festival, many people would don costumes made from the skins and heads of their animals.


The Celts also believed that the change in seasons and other turning points in their lives represented magical times when they could communicate with deceased loved ones.  While they did not believe in evil, they did believe in Fairy Folk who, resentful of appropriation of their land, would trap people in fairy mounds where they would be forever lost.


Also, since the eve of their new year was a night that belonged to neither year, the Celts considered it a time of chaos and would engage in various pranks.  Fairies were believed to roam the earth on this night, and people would leave food and drink outside the doors to their homes to gain their blessings in the coming year.  People would imitate fairies and go from house to house begging for treats, the failure of which to provide usually resulted in some type of practical joke.


With the spread of Christianity, pagan practices such as those of the Celts and Druids were viewed as devil-worship and their practitioners as witches.  In an attempt to assimilate pagan customs and festivals into Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church established November 1st as All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day.


But, Celtic belief continued and so All Hallows’ Eve has morphed into All Hallows’ Even, Hallowe’en, and ultimately, our Halloween.  And so, as you don your costumes, attend a party, go trick or treating, or pass out candy or treats to those at your door, consider that you are perpetuating a tradition that is more than two millennia old.


Have a Happy Halloween.

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12 Responses to “The Celtic Roots of Halloween”

  1. Kat F. says:

    Thank you for this article about the true roots of Halloween, to educate those who wish to believe that its origins are linked to evil and human sacrifice. Halloween is truly a wonderful holiday for all ages. It is my fervent hope that it endures and delights for at least another 2,000 years.

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