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The Origins & History of Halloween Part 1: Ancient Samhain

Good morning everyone! Today, I decided to start yet another mini series on here during my 31 Days of Halloween. I have always been fascinated by the history of Halloween itself and where exactly the holiday as well as its traditions came from. How exactly did we get to the point of children going door to door asking for candy in costumes? Well to find out, we have to journey back over 2,500 years into the past. From an ancient Celt tradition to today’s modern celebration, let’s take a trip to the past to understand this day and age we live in now. Enjoy.

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Dating back to the 17th century and possibly even earlier, Samhain started as an ancient ritual and holiday celebrated originally by the Celts. Observed over the course of October 31st to November 2nd (usually a three day festival), Samhain was a celebration of the Celtic New Year held between the autumn equinox and the start of the winter solstice. This festival was created in part to the idea that this time of year was the end of light days and the introduction of the darker ones. It was also believed to be the time of the year where the wall between the living and the dead was at its lowest, allowing spirits to be present. It was even believed in Celtic Mythology that the pathway between the human realm and the magical one was opened as well, allowing otherworldly creatures such as fairies to enter our world (Ancient History Encyclopedia).

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Early Samhain festivities revolved around celebrating the harvest. Since the colder months were in tow, many celebrated by gathering their crop and feasting to the start of another new year. Another major factoring tradition for Samhain was bonfires and animal sacrifices. Community bonfires were usually set aflame by Druids and then brought home by others using torches to further ignite their own fires. The Druids would also throw the sacrificial animal’s bones into the fire, another important ritual to Samhain, which is how we coined the term ‘bonfire’ today (originally ‘bone-fire’) (ibid).

So from this we can start to see where the ideas for our modern day Halloween slowly started to form. The Celts believed that this time of the year was when the veil between worlds was at its thinnest. Not only could spirits from beyond join the living, but creatures from other worlds entirely. Over time offering started to be left on the outskirts of villages or fields to try and keep these magical beings at bay during the festivities. Stories were told of different phantoms and mystical creatures that attacked anyone who stumbled upon them. Some even started to dress up in monstrous costumes to try fend off any creatures (such as fairies) who may lure them away forever.

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As time went on, the traditions of Samhain only grew. Bonfires were lit closer to home so none would stray too far in risk of being captured by a magical being. Turnips were carved and placed in front of homes to keep unwanted spirits away (check out yesterday’s post about Halloween superstitions to learn of the Jack-O-Lantern origins!). Many welcomed the spirits of loved ones or those who have passed on into their homes with open arms. Traditions soon started of offering food, dinner, and empty chairs to those who could no longer be seen. Windows would be left open at night so familiar spirits could come and go as they pleased. Some even took the time to recap the previous year’s events so that the dead could keep in touch (History).

At this point we can see the rough ground work and foundation being created to allow the future formation of what we now know as Halloween. But how did things jump from ancient rituals of harvest feasting and welcoming the darker days, to today’s candy eating and costume wearing traditions? Check back in tomorrow as we take a deeper look at what happened when Christianity started to dominate.

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