The Origin Story of Halloween
Samhain, what’s that?
Halloween is my favorite holiday, hands down. The dressing up, the decorating, the spookiness, and the candy, it warms my weird little heart. So how did this wonderfully strange celebration come about? Well, it started with the Celtic Pagan holiday Samhain.
“To the ancient Celts, Samhain marked the most important of four Celtic fire festivals,” according to Diana Rajchel in her book Samhain: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Halloween. It was the start of the winter season when they let their hearth fires burn out for the night and the veil between the worlds grew thin. During that night, the dead walk and the world goes from being ruled by the god and the goddess to that of the Crone. The Celts dressed as animals and “fearsome creatures” to keep from being kidnapped by unfriendly faeries and later, evil witches. (Rajchel 18)
When Christianity came to Ireland, the church converted the holidays along with the people either by rescheduling it or renaming it in honor of a saint. Pope Boniface tried the latter in the fifth century, but the fire festival continued so he moved it back and declared November 1st All Saints Day. Later they added All Souls Day on November 2nd when the festival still wouldn’t stop. But the night before November 1st retained a life of its own going by Allhallows eve, Hallowe’en, or Hallowmas. No matter its name, it became a “repository for most of the original Pagan practices.”
Those practices came to the US with the Irish Ulster Protestants when they immigrated in the nineteenth century, including parties, games, and masquerade parades that were so fun they were joined by their non-Irish neighbors. It caught on as entertainment for children but by the 1930s “the tradition of Halloween pranking became a significant and expensive problem in many American communities,” so by the 50s most cities had trick-or-treating events, to distract troublemakers. By the 70s, the holiday was commercialized and became for everyone no matter their age, including the LGBT community in New York who adopted it as “a day to celebrate their true selves.” (Rajchel 20) In the 80s, as the Pagan (North America) and Wiccan and Traditional Witch (UK) movements grew, more traditional and solemn Samhain celebrations began gaining popularity.
Today Samhain is considered the Witch’s New Year, a spiritual sabbat very much separate from the secular Halloween. “Often it is a quiet, solemn occasion in private Pagan households. Many see it as the most important ritual of the year,” according to Rajchel, “It is still a day to honor the dead and to think about death along with other things that we fear. It is still a time to meditate and reflect, and people still perform divinations, enjoy feasts, and sometimes light bonfires.” (47)
It’s a great time for spells, divination, and communing with the dearly departed. The threshold/in-between state of this time of year is supposed to be extra magical, so get out there and do some magick!