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Halloween’s Very Celtic History

Olivia Gacio-Perretto

Halloween is a well-loved tradition in many countries and cultures about honoring the spirits of the dead and appreciating the scarier elements of life. While Halloween has made a significant cultural impact on many countries, including the USA, many who celebrate don’t actually know where this beloved holiday originated from.

‘Halloween’ isn’t what this holiday was originally called. It started in Britain and Ireland as a Celtic tradition called Samhain that celebrated the night before the harvest and the first day of winter. The Celts would light bonfires and sacrifice their produce and livestock to their Gods in order to have a plentiful harvest. They would also dress up in animal skins to disguise themselves among the creatures they believed roamed around during this time, and they would leave food outside their homes to distract the mischievous spirits from destroying their property. Similarly, the tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns began with the Celts who would carve scary faces into vegetables and leave them in their yards to ward off goblins and fairies.

In the first century CE, the Romans conquered Britain and adopted these traditions combining them with their own existing holidays that took place during the same season. These Roman holidays were called Feralia, where the Romans honored their dead, and Pomona, where they honored the goddess of fruit and the harvest. While the Romans converted the Celts in Britain to Christianity throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, the traditions of Samhain were passed down for generations.

Samhain got the name Halloween from Christianity when the Christians wanted to stop the Celtic traditions. They rebranded the holiday as celebrating All Souls’ Day or All Saints’ Day, so they called it ‘All Hallows Eve’ which meant ‘the night before All Souls’ Day’.

During medieval times, many Halloween traditions we see today would begin to form, taking heavy influence from Samhain’s Celtic traditions. ‘Souling’ was a practice where beggars would go door to door on Halloween night and promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners' dead relatives in exchange for food.

In the 1700s, Halloween traditions increased in popularity, spreading to North America, Oceania, and more recently, countries in western Europe such as Spain and Belgium. With that, Halloween reaches us today, when kids are getting ready to put costumes on while their families are setting up fun props to scare unsuspecting guests. In short, we should all be appreciative of Halloween’s fascinating transformation throughout time.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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