It is believed that the origins of Halloween may probably be found in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival which honored the dead. The Celts divided their year into four major holidays and, according to this calendar, the year began on a day which now corresponds to November 1 on the modern calendar. The date marked the advent of Winter and, since the Celts were pastoral people, it was a time when cattle and sheep were moved to closer pastures and all livestock secured for the coming months of harsh Winter. It was also a time when crops were harvested and stored...a date which marked both an ending and a beginning in a perpetual cycle of life.
This Celtic festival was observed at a time the people called Samhain...the largest and most significant holiday of the year...also commonly referred to as "All Hollows" Eve. The Celts lived approximately 2,000 years ago in the areas now known as Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France. It was believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other period during the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living. This belief stemmed from the idea that during Samhain, the souls of those who had died during the year would begin their travels into the Underworld. It was also a time when Lord Samhain, Lord of Darkness, would arrive in search of those spirits in order that he might aid them in their journey. Gatherings were held to sacrifice animals, fruits and vegetables. Bonfires were lit to honor the dead and to aid the souls as they journeyed...the fire was also beneficial in keeping such souls away from the living since, on that day, all manner of beings might be abroad...ghosts, fairies, demons...all considered to be part and parcel of the "dark and dread."
By 43 A.D., Roman armies had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. During the course of the following 400 years that Rome ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first of these was known as Feralia, a day in late October when Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second Roman festival to be incorporated into the Celtic Samhain festivities was one which honored Pomona, Roman Goddess of Fruit and Trees.
When Christian missionaries undertook the task of changing the religious practices of the Celtic people, Samhain was gradually transformed into the modern celebration of Halloween. During the early centuries of the First Millennium, before the time of such missionaries as Saint Patrick and Saint Columcille converted the Celts to Christianity, they practiced an elaborate religion through their priestly caste known as the Druids. The Druids were composed of priests, poets, scientists and scholars. As religious leaders, ritual specialists and bearers of knowledge, the Druids were not entirely different from the very missionaries and monks who would later Christianize the Celtic people and forever brand them as evil devil worshippers.
As a result of Christian efforts to eliminate "pagan" holidays (such as Samhain), the Church succeeded in bringing about major transformations to Celtic festivals. In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries regarding the native beliefs and customs of those peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than attempting to obliterate the customs and beliefs of native races, Pope Gregory instructed his missionaries to employ such traditions. For example, if a certain group worshipped a tree, then rather than cut that tree down, the Pope advised that it be consecrated to Christ and its worship be allowed to continue.
In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and became a basic approach used in the work of Catholic missionaries. Church holy days were set to purposely coincide with native festivals. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25 because it corresponded with the Mid-Winter celebration of many cults. In the same manner, Saint John's Day was set to take place on the Summer Solstice.
With its emphasis squarely upon the supernatural however, Samhain was decidedly pagan. While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, the earlier religion's unearthly deities were branded as evil and said to be associated with the devil. Representative of the Church's rival religion, Druids were declared evil worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits and the Underworld of the Celts inevitably became identified with Christianity's concept of Hell. Although this policy diminished beliefs in the traditional Celtic Gods, it could not completely eradicate such ideas. Celtic belief in creatures of the supernatural continued to persist and the Church instituted deliberate attempts to define those who followed the old ways as being not merely dangerous, but also malicious until such people were forced to go into hiding and eventually branded as witches.
The Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November 1. The day honored every known Christian Saint and particularly those who did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. This feast day was intended to act as a substitute for Samhain...to draw the devotion of the Celtic nation and, finally, forever replace the old Pagan festival. However, that was not what occurred, even though the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status over time and became the fairies and leprechauns of more recent tradition.
The ancient beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was far too strong in the minds of believers, who failed to be satisfied with the new and more abstract Catholic feast which honored Saints. Realizing that something would be needed in order to subsume the original energy of Samhain, the Church tried once more in the 9th Century to supplant it with another Christian feast day. This time, it established November 2 as All Souls Day...a time when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead. But, once again, the practice of retaining traditional customs while attempting to redefine them had a sustaining effect...the traditional beliefs and customs lived on, often in new guises.
All Saints Day, otherwise known as Hallowmas ("hallowed" being defined as "sanctified" or "holy"), continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The evening prior to that day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought of as evil. Folk continued to propitiate those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which later became known as Halloween...an ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year's Day dressed in a contemporary fashion. The traditional black and orange associated with Halloween also have their roots in the ancient festival of Samhain...black to represent the time of darkness after the death of the God and orange to await the dawn of his rebirth at Yule.
NOTE: There is much controversy regarding the identification of Samhain as a Druid Death God in terms of his association with the ancient Celtic tradition of Halloween. To read more on this subject please visit: