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  • AutorenbildRebekah Olson

🎃 Halloween's Celtic Roots

Finishing off our Halloween-themed articles, let's talk about the holiday's Celtic, pagan, witchy roots.

Origin Story

The Halloween we celebrate today originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (sah-win, Gaelic). If Halloween is your favorite holiday, then you and the ancient Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in modern-day Ireland, Great Britain, and northern France, have something in common! For Celts, Samhain was the most important festival of the year.

This Pagan festival welcomes in the harvest and signifies the beginning of the year's "dark half". Celebrants believe the veil between the physical and spirit worlds is thinnest during this time of year, allowing easier interaction between humans and others.

After harvesting was finished, Druid priests and their Pagan followers would commemorate Samhain by lighting bonfires (Samghnagans), sacrificing cows, and wearing costumes to ward off ghosts. Historians believe the festival was a mandatory three-day celebration for Pagans, with failure to participate resulting in punishment from the gods.

Roman Invasion

As with many non-Christian things of the time, the Catholic Church decided they had to put an end to the Pagan festival. What better way to do this than by creating another, even better holiday that just so happens to fall on the same day?

Well, in the 8th century, that's exactly what Pope Gregory III did. And so was born, the church-sanctioned holiday of All Saints Day, which just happened to have all the same traditions as Samhain and fall in the same three-day period 🙄 As we learned in our last article, once All Saints Day was invented, the day before it came to be known as All Hallows Eve, later Halloween.

Even before the Pope got involved though, the Celtic ways had long since been fighting invading cultures and the threat of extinction. By 43 AD, the Roman Empire had already conquered the majority of Celtic land. During their following 400-year reign, these two pre-existing Roman holidays ended up becoming combined with Samhain:

  1. Feralia: for commemorating the passing of the dead

  2. Pomona: for honoring the goddess of fruit (where we get the bobbing-for-apples tradition)

Halloween Comes to America

But how did an ancient AF, Pagan, Celtic holiday with a Roman, Catholic façade make its way to the Protestant new world of America? Well, through the Irish, of course!

With the first British immigrants arriving in colonial New England being largely Protestant, the celebration of All Saints Day was actually extremely limited.

In the second half of the 19th century though, America became flooded with Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine. With them, came many of their cherished traditions, such as those passed down from generation to generation of the Celts who managed to hold on to their ancient Samhain traditions, despite invasion and cultural oppression.

Samhain Monsters

The Pukah, a shape-shifting creature, receives harvest offerings from the field.

The Lady Gwyn, a headless woman dressed in white, chases night wanderers and is accompanied by her black pig.

The Dullahan, a headless horseman who carries his own heads (Icabod Crane, anyone?), rides a flame-eyed horse and represents a death omen to anyone who sees him.

The Faery Host, a group of hunters, haunt and kidnap people on the nights of Samhain.

The Sluagh, a spirit, comes from the west, enters people's houses, and steals their souls.

Celtic Reconstructionists & Wicca

Samhain saw a broad revival of Samhain in the 1980s with the growing popularity of Wicca.

Modern Pagans who embrace the ancient Celtic traditions are called Celtic Reconstructionists and they refer to Samhain as Oiche Shamnhna, which celebrates the mating of Tuatha de Danaan gods Dagda and River Unis. These Pagans celebrate this holiday by placing juniper around their homes, creating an altar for the dead, and hosting a feast to honor lost loved ones.

For Wiccans, Samhain celebrates the passing of the year and merges ancient Celtic traditions with modern Halloween traditions. In the Druid tradition, Samhain is a festival on October 31 and usually involves a bonfire and communion with the dead. And American Pagans often hold music and dance celebrations called Witches’ Balls.

Oslo, Norway: Vigeland Sculpture Park, 20081017

That's it for our Halloween Articles this year. I hope you enjoyed this spooky season and got to eat lots of candy 😀 If you liked what you read, or learned something new, sign up for our newsletter so you never miss a beat!

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