From Samhain to Halloween
From Samhain to Halloween

by Linda Kerr

The Gaelic Celts
Our modern-day Halloween has its beginnings in the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sou'win). The Celts had a great reverence for nature; the passing of the seasons was of great significance to them. This particular festival marked the end of the summer, and their new year, beginning November 1.

The Celtic New Year was a very fragile time of endings and beginnings, full of divinations and protective rituals for the coming year. The 48-hour period from October 31 to November 2 was called Oidhche Shamhna, "The Vigil of Samhain"; (Schauffler, ix) the fabric between this world and the next was at its weakest, spirits and faeries were abroad, and even the bravest folk stayed indoors at night. (Although the Celts gave great reverence to their dead, who were thought to be always close by, they still didn't want too close of a contact with them!)

During the Vigil of Samhain, the Lord of the Dead, called Samhain, assembled the souls of all who had died during the previous year. (according to Walker, 372, Samhain was named for the Aryan Lord of Death, Samana, meaning "The Leveller.") At death the souls of the good entered the body of another human, and the souls of the ones who had sinned were confined to the bodies of animals. (Linton, 5; Douglas, 565; Schauffler, ix) Samhain then decided what form they should take for the next year; some were released to go to the Druid's form of heaven.

The Sun god was also celebrated at this season. Fires were lighted on hilltops and open spaces in his honor. "The Sun, as ripener of the grain, was thanked for the harvest, now safely stored against the winter." (Linton, 4) The bonfires also strengthened the Sun for his coming battle with cold and darkness. (Linton, 4) The fires had other purposes; to welcome the winter season, purify the people and land, and ward off evil spirits, then at their strongest. (Hole, 87) In the home, all cooking fires were put out and new ones kindled for the new year.

As the British Isles came under Roman influence, some of the rites of the Roman festival of Pomona were incorporated into the Samhain activities. Pomona was the goddess who cared for the fruits and presided over harvests; (Douglas, 565) her festival was held around November 1. (Schauffler, ix)

The Middle Ages
The Celtic festival of Samhain continued in one form or another through the Dark Ages, although the original meanings were probably lost, and vague superstitions put in their place. Folk still believed, however, that the dead walked abroad, and were allowed to visit their former homes during these 48 hours.

In 834 A.D., the Church took note of this, and moved their Feast of All Saints from May 13 to November 1. (Linton, 6; Douglas, 576) This was a feast in honor of all the saints, known or unknown. All Saints' Day became known as All Hallows Day, and October 31 as All Hallows Eve. (All Saint's Day is one of the highest ranking feasts, along with Easter, in the Roman Catholic church; its observance displaces all others. The feast was retained by the Protestants after the Reformation, and it is observed by the Anglican church; Douglas, 576) "Hallow" means "to make sacred or holy." (American Heritage Desk Dictionary, 444) Christianity had sanctified the pagan season.

In 988 A.D., the Church set All Souls' Day on November 2, rounding out the 48-hour Vigil of Samhain. All Souls' Day is a festival set apart for those who have died in the faith, although they have not suffered martyrdom or achieved sainthood. (Linton, 13) Part of this festival was the return of the spirits of the dead to visit their former homes, and naturally, everything possible was done to make them welcome. (Schauffler, 10)

The family spent the day in prayer and at church-services. After supper was cleared away that night, food and drink were set out on the table, and the fire was banked. The family then went to bed, and the souls of the ancestors came at midnight to eat and warm themselves by the fire. "In southern Italy in the 14th century, every family prepared a special feast for its dead members on All Soul's Day. In Salerno especially this custom reached elaborate heights. There a table was set and laid with a bountiful meal. Then all the members of the household went to the church and stayed there the entire day, leaving the house open for the ghosts. It was a very bad omen if any of the food remained uneaten when the family returned, for this meant that the ghosts were expressing disapproval...As a matter of fact, there was seldom any food left when the family returned; the practice was known to all the surrounding villages and on the morning of All Souls' Day thieves and beggars from near and far gathered on the outskirts of the town. When all the good people were in church, they swarmed into the town and enjoyed a fine feast. The church banned this custom in the 15th century, proclaiming that it smacked of paganism. No doubt the housewives of Salerno were relieved at no longer having to cook dinners for all the thieves in the countryside." (Linton, 18. Also see Linton, 19-21, for other cultures.)

The theme of the dead assembling and returning to their homes is common to other cultures as well; the Latvians believed that during the October Feast of the Dead, the departed spirits returned on horseback to visit their families. "As late as the 17th century, Latvians would lay the skin and guts of a horse on a grave, to help the return of the dead." (Simpson, 39)

Halloween Fires
In the Gaelic countries of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany, the old traditions associated with the Celtic Samhain survived into the 19th century. The Halloween fires, called Samhnagan by the Scots, were still lit at dusk, although they were not for Samhain, the Celtic god, but for Halloween gaiety and a defiant welcome to the winter season. (Linton, 24)

In the Scottish Highlands in the 18th century, "each family would carry lighted torches into the fields on October 31 and march about the fields sunwise (clockwise) in the belief that good crops would thus be ensured for the coming year. At dark the torches were taken home and thrown into a heap for a bonfire. Each member of the family would put a stone in the fire and mark a circle around it. When the fire was burned out the ashes were raked over the stones. If any stone was found misplaced in the morning, or if there was a footprint near it, the person to whom the stone belonged believed that he would die within a year." (Douglas, 568)

In Wales, people carried armloads of straw, gorse, and other easily-ignited materials up to hilltops, and lit fires at dusk. The people roasted apples and potatoes, danced around the bonfire, and leapt through the flames. "The end of the ceremony was usually a headlong flight down the hill to escape the hwch ddu gwta, the tailless Black Sow who was one of the terrors of Hallowe'en. Out of the shadows of the pagan past she came at the moment when the flames died down, and all fled before her, crying 'May the tailless Black Sow take the hindmost!' She might sometimes be encountered elsewhere on All Hallows Eve, and always, like the other strange wanderers of that night, she was dangerous." (Hole, 88)

To the spirits originally gathered by the Lord of the Dead were added troops of goblins and fairies. In the Middle Ages, due to the Church's uprising against what they considered to be "witchcraft," ugly old witches and their black cats also began to be associated with Halloween. (Linton, 7) Prudent folk stayed indoors to avoid encountering all these strange creatures.

However, there are always a few brave souls willing to challenge the night. "Guisers" were people decked out in strange costumes intended to impersonate the returning dead, going from house to house and singing and dancing to keep evil spirits away.

In England, prior to the Reformation, women and girls went "souling," visiting houses and begging for "soul cakes." In return for the cakes, prayers were offered for the souls of the donor's dead relatives. (Schauffler, 12-13) In time only the children kept to this, singing instead

"Soul! Soul! for a soul cake!
I pray, good mistress, for a soul cake!
An apple or a pear, or a plum or a cherry
Any good thing to make us merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for him who made us all.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give us good alms and we'll be gone." (Linton, 12)

In the 17th century, the Irish peasants went about asking for donations for a feast in honor of St. Columba, who had by then taken over the place of the Old Lord of the Dead. (Douglas, 571; Linton, 17)

Another form of souling was carried on in Ireland till after the 1900's. On Hallows Eve, people paraded through the district going to each house, asking for contributions in the name of "Muck Olla." (Linton, 102; Hole, 90) This was a legendary boar of monstrous size. (Hole, 91) The name is probably a perversion of that of an old Celtic god; the custom certainly reminds one of the spirits in their animal bodies, and the Lord of the Dead as Muck Olla.

The procession was led by a man in a white robe wearing a horse-head mask, or the skull of a mare. "The horse was sacred to the Sun God, which indicates that this custom was a survival of a Druid rite." (Linton, 102) The leader "was called Lair Bhan (White Mare). After him walked young men blowing cow horns, with the remainder of the procession trailing behind this group." (Linton, 102) They stopped at each house, demanding contributions to Muck Olla, and predicting dire things if not satisfied. They returned home laden with eggs, corn, potatoes, and other farm produce. Our modern "trick-or-treat" is probably a direct descendent of this custom. ( Halloween was not celebrated in America until after the Gaelic peoples began to arrive from the Old World (the Puritans thought anything fun was evil), and especially after the Irish immigration during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840's; Linton, 100-101.)

Another tradition that is very ancient, and is still around today, is apple-ducking or bobbing. In its older form, it involves a divination game. The person who gets an apple pares it round and round in one long strip and throws the peel over their shoulder. The letter it most resembles upon landing is the first letter of their future lover's name. (Schauffler, 7)

Going back even further, ducking for apples represented soul symbols (the apples) in the Cauldron of Regeneration (the water). (Walker, 372) Owls, bats and cats are also soul symbols cats were sacred to the Celts, who believed they had once been humans who were changed to that form as a punishment for evil deeds. (Douglas, 566) Again, this brings to mind the Lord of Death gathering for regeneration all the souls who had been confined to an animal body for the past year.

The Gaelic people had many games and divination rites associated with Halloween, many of which were practiced in Europe and America until the turn of this century. Most of these harken back to the Celtic new year, when divinations were performed to see what the new year would bring, and games were played to keep the evil spirits at bay. The use of fruits and nuts for divination is borrowed from the ancient Roman festival of Pomona, goddess of fruits and harvests. (Douglas, 570) Originally, the divinations were probably considered to be utterances by the ancestral dead; later they became questions of love and marriage. The season is now regarded as a time of merry-making rather than for serious consultation of magic oracles. (Douglas, 571)

Apples played a prominent part in divinations; if a girl peeled an apple in front of a mirror in a room lighted with a candle, an apparition of her future husband would appear behind her in the mirror. Another method required the girl to cut the apple into nine slices, eating eight of them, and, while standing with her back to the mirror, throw the ninth slice over her shoulder. Turning quickly around, she would see her husband-to-be looking at her from the glass. (Hole, 90)

The English would tie a lighted candle on one end of a stick and an apple on the other, suspend it from the middle and set it spinning. The object was to bite the apple as it swung past and not get burnt by the candle. This may be a diminished relic of the ancient hilltop fires of Samhain. (Douglas, 570)

Another candle game was the candle leap. This involved setting 12 candles in a fairly large ring on the floor, representing the 12 months of the year. A person leapt over each candle in turn. If the leap was clear, that month would be prosperous. If a candle was blown out or knocked over, however, that month would be very unlucky, even bringing death. (Hole, 90) The rhyme "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candle-stick" may have originated from this game.

A curious tradition is the jack-o'-lantern. I have found several different explanations for these; the most amusing is this legend from Ireland. Keep in mind that turnips and rutabagas were common in the British Isles; pumpkins are an American tradition.

A sour man named Jack lived a life of drink and evil deeds. One day Jack drank a bit too much, and his soul began to slip away. The Devil came to claim him, but Jack lured him up a tree, then marked a cross on the trunk so the Devil couldn't come down. Jack then extracted a promise from him that he would never seek Jack's soul. When Jack finally died, he was turned away from heaven because of his love of drink, so in search of somewhere to go, he tried hell. But the Devil wouldn't hear of it, because of the trick played on him in the tree, and hurled a hot coal at him. Jack was eating a turnip at the time, and caught the hot coal with it. With nowhere to go, he was doomed to wander the earth with his lantern lighting his way until Judgement Day. (Linton, 43-45)

According to C. Hole, jack-o'-lanterns are an impersonation of the returning dead and other spirits walking abroad. By this impersonation, they hope for protection of themselves and others from the power of these specters. In some districts in England, turnip-lanterns are hung upon gateposts on Halloween for the express purpose of protecting the house from evil spirits. (Hole, 91)

It seems that anything done to keep the spirits away, was once done to welcome these same spirits, who only became "evil" towards the Middle Ages. In Britain, people hollowed out turnips and placed candles inside them to make food offerings to the spirits of the dead; and the Irish put candles in their windows to guide the spirits home at Samhain. (Hole, 188)

Superstitions abound at Halloween. Here is one to think about, told by Lillian Eichler, from "Hallowe'en." "The white hare is more feared on Halloween than any ghost. The superstition is that when a maiden, having loved not wisely, but too well, dies of a broken heart, her spirit comes back in the shape of a white hare to haunt her deceiver. The phantom follows him everywhere, and is invisible to all but him. Ultimately it causes his death on some dark Hallowe'en. We see the white hare as a symbol of conscience. It is usually conscience that gives rise to fear, and fear, to superstition." (Schauffler, 4)


The American Heritage Desk Dictionary. 1981. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA.
Douglas, George William, The American Book of Days. 1948. H.W. Wilson Co., New York, NY.
Hole, Christina, British Folk Customs. 1976. Hutchinson and Co. Ltd., London.
Linton, Ralph and Adelin, Halloween Through Twenty Centuries. 1950. Henry Schuman, New York, NY.
Schauffler, Robert Haven (compiled by), Hallowe'en - Our American Holiday Series. 1961. Dod, Mead and Co., NY.
Simpson, Jacqueline, Library of the World's Myths and Legends - European Mythology. 1987. Peter Bedrick Books, New York, NY.
Walker, Barbara G., The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. 1983. Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA.
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