Ancient History of Halloween – The Early Years

The ancient Gauls or Celts celebrated a day identified as Samhain. Samhain fell during the time of year marked by darkness and became a holiday associated with the diminishment of light, darkness, and death. The season grew colder and plants began to die during this time. Samhain marked the early entrance into the wintry season and easily became associated with death and the deceased.

They recognized two seasons, each representing the light or dark half of the year.

History of Halloween – Celtic Traditions Continued and Transformed

The Celts believed it was at this time that the souls of the dead traveled into the other world. They believed that during this time the dead were more likely to move among the living. To help the dead along their journey and keep the living from being affected by those of the dead who were evil, the Celts held a festival called Samhain. During this festival they would sacrifice animals, vegetables, and fruits to the dead, and light bonfires in honor of them. Also during the festival of Samhain, the Celts wore costumes of animal skins and heads, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.

Samhain also marked the end of the yearly harvest. People gathered apples, turnips, wheat, oats, barley, berries, and other harvested foods. They would also gather wood and peat for winter fires, salting foods to prepare for the arrival of winter. This gathering would take place between October 31st and November 2nd.

Early Irish People Celebrated the Feast of Tara

Early Irish peoples celebrated the Feast of Tara. This festival involved the placement of the High King on his thrown, marking the new year to come. All fires were put out and the ancient Druids were responsible for lighting the first fire of the New Year. This first fire was lit on a hill positioned twelve miles northwest of Tara in Tlachtga. This location was considered sacred since it was a burial ground where the Ancient Druid Mogh Ruith’s daughter was buried, a form of the feminine Divine at that time.

Who Were the Druids?

A Druid was a member of the educated, professional class among the Celtic peoples of Gaul, Britain, Ireland, and possibly elsewhere during the Iron Age. The Druid class included law-speakers, poets and doctors, among other learned professions, although the best known among the Druids were the religious leaders.

Very little is known about the ancient Druids. They left no written accounts of themselves, and the only evidence are a few descriptions left by Greek, Roman, and various scattered authors and artists, as well as stories created by later medieval Irish writers. While archaeological evidence has been uncovered pertaining to the religious practices of the Iron Age people, no artefacts or images have been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids. Various recurring themes emerge in a number of the Greco-Roman accounts of the Druids, including that they performed animal and even human sacrifice, believed in a form of reincarnation, and held a high position in Gaulish society. Next to nothing is known about their cultic practice, except for the ritual of oak and mistletoe.

Christians Celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day

In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV proclaimed November 1st as “All Saints Day”, which was also known as “All Hallows” or “All Hallowmas”. From this came the name “Halloween”. In Christian traditions, the “Hallow” in “Halloween” comes to represent “saints” that are honored or revered as holy. The day, as an ancient Christian practice involved a feast celebrating all saints and martyrs. The celebration commonly occurred on November 1st and was first celebrated by Christians during the eighth century.

November 1st became a day revered as All Saints Day or All Souls Day. This day honored all deceased, as well as saints and martyrs. Prayers were offered to deceased ancestors that had passed away during the previous year to free them from Purgatory so they may go to heaven. On this day they would ring church bells and offer prayers. When Protestantism became the dominant Christian faith, the ringing of church bells was no longer permitted on the holiday. Nevertheless, this did not stop those that wanted to offer prayers for deceased ancestors from doing so.

During the 16th century, people offered prayers during a rite outdoors with bonfires lit. This ritual incorporated ancient Gaul practices in which all fires were extinguished except for large bonfires that were lit for the entire community.

When the Celts were conquered by the Roman Empire, the influence of Christianity began to permeate the Celtic rituals and beliefs. Christian missionaries and higher Roman Catholic officials declared the festival of Samhain to be evil, and sought ways to change the festival to become more Christian-oriented. The act of making pagan holidays Christian allowed for the easier conversion of those that participated in pagan practices or that adhered to pagan religions.

History of Halloween Trick-or-Treating

Christians adhering to All Souls’ Day practices commonly used soul cakes. These cakes were givien to individuals that were poor so that the poor would, in turn, offer up prayers for the deceased. This tradition also stems back to ancient pagan practices where foods would be left out for the deceased to either satiate “hungry ghosts” or to appease and/or honor the deceased that would return on Samhain to visit their living relatives.

In addition, poor people would practice the tradition of “souling” where they would go door-to-door in wealthy neighborhoods in order to get soul cakes, alms, and fruit. This was the origins of the modern day practice of “trick-or-treating” where children in costumes go from door to door to get Halloween candy.

The evening prior to “All Saints Day” or “All Souls Day”, many Celts left gifts of food outside their doors to appease the spirits. In modern times, this is the tradition we follow by giving gifts of candy to the “ghosts and goblins” that come knocking on our doors on Halloween night. From the festival of Samhain derives our modern tradition of the Halloween party, with guests arriving dressed in their favorite Halloween costumes.

Trick-or-treating may also stem from ancient Irish practices surrounding the Saint Columb Kill Festival. At the time, peasants would go from house to house collecting cheese, apples, butter, eggs, and breadcakes in order to prepare for the festivities.

Modern Day Halloween Factoids

Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of “puling [whimpering, whining], like a beggar at Hallowmas.”

The earliest known reference to ritual begging on Halloween in English speaking North America occurs in 1911, when a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario, near the border of upstate New York, reported that it was normal for the smaller children to go street guising on Halloween between 6 and 7 p.m., visiting shops and neighbors to be rewarded with nuts and candies for their rhymes and songs.

Another isolated reference appears in Chicago in 1920. It does not seem to have become a widespread practice until the 1930s, with the earliest known uses in print of the term “trick or treat” appearing in 1934, and the first use in a national publication occurring in 1939.

Early national attention to trick-or-treating was given in October 1947 issues of the children’s magazines Jack and Jill and Children’s Activities, and by Halloween episodes of the network radio programs The Baby Snooks Show in 1946 and The Jack Benny Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1948.

The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney portrayed it in the cartoon Trick or Treat, Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their television show, and UNICEF first conducted a national campaign for children to raise funds for the charity while trick-or-treating.