Although most ancient cultures had some sort of celebration to honor the harvest in the fall, It’s the Celtic New Year festival that is most closely related to the modern secular holiday, Halloween. Samhain, pronounced sow-en, the traditional Celtic name for the festival, is translated literally as “summer’s end.” A common misconception is that Samhain is the name of the Celtic god of death. There is no archeological or anthropological record of a Celtic god called Samhain or of any god the Celts considered as the god of death.
The Celts of the British Isles and Ireland recognized two seasons: the light and the dark, or summer and winter, as we would call them. The full moon cycle nearest November first marked the final harvest and the end of the light (summer) and the beginning of the dark (winter) months. Conversely, the end of winter and the beginning of summer has its own festival, Beltane, celebrated on the full moon cycle closest to May first.
The Samhain festival was a time to remember and honor dead loved ones. In Irish Mythology the Shield of Scathach, the warrior-princess from the Lands of Shadows, was lowered and the barrier between the world of the dead and the world of the living was opened. The souls of the dead were welcome guests during this time in Celtic homes. Food and entertainment were provided for the souls of the dead revisiting their loved ones.
Masks and jack-o-lanterns were used to scare away unfriendly or mischievous spirits that might cross to the material plane with the souls of the dead. Jack-o-lanterns were hallowed out turnips with scary faces carved on them, and candles inside. Pumpkins weren’t used until after the potato famine caused a wave of Irish to immigrate to the US, where turnips are not very plentiful, but the native pumpkin is.
Samhain is also the time when the herds were culled for the winter. That is why the October moon is known as the blood moon. The meat from culling was used in the festival feast. In Ireland sacred fires were lit on hilltops and fed with the bones of the slaughtered cattle. The fires were believed to consume all the misfortunes of the previous year. Once the bone fire, or bonfire, was lit all the village’s hearths were extinguished and relit from the sacred fire, symbolizing community unity.
After the Roman invasion of Britain, the Roman fall festival in honor Pomona the Goddess of Fruit and Fruit Trees, were incorporated into the native Celtic festival. The apple traditionally symbolized the Goddess Pomona. The tradition of bobbing for apples may have been added in this time period.
The origin of the word Halloween comes from the medieval Christian holiday All Saints Day, sometimes called All Hallows or Hallowmas. Which was contracted to Hallowe’en and later Halloween. It’s believed that this holiday was created to replace the older Pagan holidays.
All Souls Day is celebrated on November second. Traditionally beggars would go from door to door asking for cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead. This is one source of the modern tradition of trick-or-treating comes from.