The Origins of Halloween

spooky halloween

Halloween began long ago as part of the Celtic new years festival. The tribes of people we now call Celts lived in Ireland, Britain, and Northern France about 2500 years ago. Their festival marked the end of Summer and the coming of the dark and cold winter months. According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to November 1 on our present calendar. This date marked the beginning of winter. The Celtic people worshiped gods and spirits of nature. Their festival was a time to be thankful for their harvest.

The Celts called this festival Samhain (SAH-win), which means "The end of Summer." Samhain was celebrated during the three days of the full moon near the end of October. To symbolize the end of the Summer months, all fires in people's homes were put out. Then later, Celtic priests, called Druids, created a new fire for the new year in a public place. Villagers would carry hot embers from the community fire back to their homes to relight their own fires.

The Celts believed that during this time when their fires were out between the ending of Summer and the beginning of Winter, spirits and ghosts that had long since passed away would return into our world.

The Celts also believed that during this time, past, present, and future mixed together. Predictions of the future could briefly be made. Druid priests would communicate with spirits about the past and the future. They asked them questions about things that would affect their whole community. Will our harvest be plentiful next year? Will it be a harsh Winter? Individuals would ask questions about their own lives. Who will I marry? Are there children in my future? Does adventure await me? Fortune telling games of our present day have their roots in the belief that the future could be learned on Samhain.

Roman Influence


The Romans began to conquer Britain in 43 AD. Many brave Celtic warriors defended their homeland for years before finally being defeated by the Romans. They did not conquer Ireland, but Roman culture did spread there. The Romans brought along their own gods and goddesses. They also planted many apple trees and introduced the Celtic people to their goddes of fruit trees, Pomona. Her feast day was on November 1st, close to the festival of Samhain.

Over the years, the Roman tradition of using apples to predict the future mixed with Celtic traditions. In one Roman game, girls would cut a symbol or their initials into an apple. Many girl's apples would then be put into a tub of water. A boy who could bite into a girl's apple and pull it from the water might someday have a chance to marry her. At many halloween parties today, people still play a similar game - bobbing for apples.

Christian Influence


With the coming of Christianity in the 800's AD, the early Church in England tried to Christianize the old Celtic festivals. Pope Boniface IV designated the 1st of November as "All Saints Day," honoring saints and martyrs. He also decreed October 31st as "All Hallows Eve", ("Hallowed" means "Holy") that eventually became Hallow'een.

All Saints' Day was meant to eventually replace Samhain, but the Celts held on to their traditions. The Christian church eventually added a second day of remembrance on November 2nd and called it All Souls' Day. On this day families pray for loved ones who have passed away.

Even when nearly all of the Celts had converted to Christianity, many of them kept their belief that all manner of spirits and souls roamed the land on the night of October 31st.

Originally published

  Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by
  Halloween Lore by
  Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by
  Library of Congress

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