All About Ancient Halloween

Today, Halloween is celebrated in the United States with costume parties, trick-or-treating, and spooky movies, but did you know that the holiday traces its roots back over two thousand years to an ancient Celtic festival of the dead?

The Celts lived in what is now northern France, Ireland and parts of Britain. Many scholars believe that the celebration of Samhain (pronounced SAH-wen) marked the end of the Celtic Year. It was observed on what would become the night of October 31st in the modern calendar. The name is Old Irish for “Summer’s End.”

The Celts believed that on this night the boundaries between the physical world and the spirit world were opened and ghosts of the dead returned to cause mischief, destroy crops, and generally make trouble. Their spiritual presence was also thought to make it possible for priests to make prophecies about the coming year. Sacred bonfires were built, crops and animal sacrifices were made, people dressed up in costume (often representing the dead or other spirit creatures) and fortunes were told. The “new fires” were then used to relight hearths extinguished earlier in the evening. This was thought to bring luck and protection for the new year.

By the First Century of the Common Era, the Romans had conquered the Celts, and their harvest festival traditions were eventually incorporated into the Celtic celebrations. Feralia was a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of their dead, and the celebration of Pomona, the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees, also fell in Autumn. Pomona’s symbol, the apple, is still a part of our Halloween festivities today with the tradition of bobbing for apples.

By the 7th Century, the Catholic Church (at that time the center of life in much of the land of the Celts) designated November 1st as a commemoration of the Saints. By the Year 1000, All Souls Day, a day to honor all of the dead, was added to the calendar on November 2nd. A three day celebration called Hallowmas included All Souls Day, All Saints Day, and the eve of All Saints (All Hallow’s Eve, or “Halloween”). Bonfires were built, parades were held, people dressed up in costume (often as saints, angels, devils, etc.), people bobbed for apples and, yes, predictions for the coming year were made. Any of this sound familiar?

It’s a long way from those ancient Celtic observances to the huge commercial holiday we know today, yet we’ll still see bonfires, and people dressing in costume, and maybe a few ghosts out on the prowl. Times have changed, or have they?


Are you going out to celebrate a grownup Halloween on the town this year? There’s no place better than Claddagh Irish Pub, and you’ll save on your meal with our Claddagh Irish Pub coupons. Sláinte! And Happy Halloween.

Comments are closed.