The History of Halloween

Published on 30 October 2022

Before the church and the candy companies, the plastic skeletons and food shaped like body parts there was the Celtic holiday of Samhain and the celebration of the Dark. So, settle down with your pumpkin-spiced latte and let’s delve deep into the history of this much loved but often misunderstood holiday.

Samhain was the original autumn holiday and was celebrated by the ancient Celtic people some 2000 years ago. The Celts made up most of Britain but were later concentrated in Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. 

They believed that there were two parts of the year: the light half and dark half. As the Celts believed every new day began at sunset, so they believed a new year cycle began with the coming of winter. It was believed that in the darkness life would emerge, like the seed which begins its life in the dark, before emerging into the light. The celebrations would begin on the evening of the 31st of October and carry through to the morning of the 1st of November.  Samhain is the day that marks the beginning of winter. A date by which all livestock should have returned from summer grazing and all harvests gathered. For come November the faeries would blight every growing plant with their freezing breath.

Special bonfires would be lit, believed to mimic the sun, these fires were said to have protective and cleansing properties and would burn away all harmful influences. Kitchen hearths would be lit with embers from the bonfire, to protect the home and keep the inhabitants safe and warm in the coming winter months.  The fires would also provide a guiding beacon to welcome the spirits of the dead. The ghosts were said to travel the earth at this special time of year, when the veil between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest.  A feast would be prepared for both the living and the dead, with a setting laid at the table to welcome the souls of long-lost kin home with a meal. 

While spirits of the deceased would seek comfort and the familiar on this chilly night, there were evil spirits, faeries and gods who would also slip through the veil and they came in search of mischief. People were said to disguise themselves as spirits in order to fool the real ones, costumes would be made of animal skins, with dark veils and the blackening of faces. Small treats would be carried in pockets to bribe any naughty spirit who may cross their path. Carved out turnips would be lit by candle and used as a lantern to illuminate the night. 

With the new year came new predictions for the year. With the veil between worlds at its thinnest it was the perfect time to have one’s fortunes told. Divination would often involve fruits of the harvest such as apples and nuts. Apples especially were associated with the otherworld and immortality, so apple bobbing and apple peeling were popular methods.  

Here are some ancient traditions that you can incorporate into your own Halloween celebration.

- Have a bonfire, or even just a small bbq in your backyard. Write your worries and concerns on a little piece of paper and toss into the fire. Let all negativity burn away.

- Apples are associated with abundance both in this world and the otherworld, so indulge in all things apple. Apple pie and a nice Cornish cider go perfectly with a bonfire

- Have a bit of fun with fortune telling and discover the name of your true love. All you need is an apple skin peeled in one long strip; the peel then tossed over the shoulder was said to form the shape of the first letter of the future spouse’s name 

- Focus on those dearly departed. Samhain is a day to remember those who are absent. By laying a place setting at the table or displaying their picture it is said to bring comfort by showing the spirits that they are still remembered.