Halloween as a holiday likely dates back to the Christianization of the insular (island) Celtic nations. Christian missionaries from the Roman Empire arrived in Ireland around the 400s CE (yes, this includes Saint Patrick). For the next few centuries, the Catholic Church would accommodate pagans across Europe by slathering their pagan ceremonies with a Christian finish. It was easy enough to replace the names of pagan gods and goddesses with the names of saints. This is likely what happened with Halloween.
Where’d the Word Come From?
Halloween is the eve of All Hallow’s Day, a Christian feast celebrating all of the saints. The night before was Hallow’s Eve. In Scots, spoken in Scotland and northern Ireland, the word “eve” is “even.” Thus, Hallow’s Even. Eventually, it became Hallow E’en. Finally, Hallowe’en became Halloween.
Before the assorted colonizers arrived, Ireland was populated by Celts. They spoke their own Irish language, had their own native religion, and celebrated distinct holidays. Samhain was a harvest festival celebrated from October 31 to November 1. Traditionally, the Celtic day started and ended at sunset. So the day of Samhain lasted from sunset on October 31 to sunset on November 1.
At Samhain, the barrier between our world and the otherworld is thinner than ever. The Celts would light bonfires and have feasts. Since the barrier between worlds is so thin, the Aos Si (fairy spirits) and the spirits of the dead can easily travel into our world. Feasts were held and food was offered to the spirits because the spirits have dominion over things like the weather, crop yields, and illness.
In later years (around the 1500s), celebrants would dress up in costumes. Presumably, they dressed up as the spirits of the dead or as the Aos Si. They went door to door and accepted offerings. Sound familiar?
Nos Calan Gaeaf
In traditional Welsh culture, November 1 was the first day of winter. In the Welsh language, it is named Calan Gaeaf. The night before is named Nos Calan Gaeaf. As in Ireland, the line between the human world and the fairy world is thinnest on October 31.
The Welsh women and children would build a fire. They would write their names on rocks and place them around the fire. As the fire died down, the women and children would hurry home. The last child remaining at the fire was in danger of being snatched up by Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta. The Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta is a tail-less black sow who travels the country with a headless woman and abducts children.
On November 1, the townsfolk would check the rocks with the names on them. If someone’s name was missing, it was thought that person would die within the year.
In Cornwall, October 31st was called Nos Kalan Gwav or Allantide (The feast of St. Allan). Allan apples formed a central part of the celebration. Allan apples are large red apples that are polished to a high shine. They were given as gifts. Also, apples would be suspended from a wooden cross that held candles. You were then supposed to try to grab the apples in your mouth without using your hands. If you were too slow, hot wax would drip on your face.
Teenage girls would place apples under their pillows to help them find suitable husbands. They would also divine their future by pouring hot lead into water. The shape of the dried metal could be interpreted to see the future… somehow.
Hop-Tu-Naa is celebrated on the Isle of Man, another of the insular Celtic nations. The celebration is similar to other Celtic harvest festivals on October 31.
The Manx folks carve turnips into lanterns. Also, they would burn fires all night and then spread the ashes out on the floor. Somehow, the next morning, there would be a footprint in the ash. (the fairies, perhaps?) If the footprint pointed towards the inside of the house, a baby would be born that year. If the footprint pointed towards the door, someone would die.
Teenage girls would also divine their future husbands by baking a cake. They would eat the cake in complete silence and then walk backwards to bed without saying a word. Hopefully, this ritual would produce a vision of their future husband in a dream. Lastly, the Manx would divine the future by holding water in their mouths and salt in each hand. They would then listen to a neighbor’s conversation. The first name mentioned would be the person he or she would marry.
Harvest festivals are pretty common in just about every agricultural civilization. The Celtic celebrations had direct influence on the Western tradition of Halloween, but harvest festivals can be found all over the world. It’s easy to see some similarities between Halloween and Celtic festivals that are at least 1,600 years old.