How the Christians Turned Celtic New Year into Halloween

I love Halloween! With the nights getting longer, the aroma of fall in the air, candles glowing in ghostly pumpkins, and children dressed in outrageous costumes — what could be better?

But what about those kids, and sometimes adults, storming the streets in their ridiculous outfits, on a mission to ring strangers’ doorbells and fill bags with candy? The October 31 tradition of trick-or-treating is really quite strange when you think about it.

So how did it start?

Celtic New Year

The holiday is thought to date from around 800 BCE, when the Celts and Gauls ruled parts of Great Britain and Northern France.

October 31 marks the last day of the Celtic calendar, the exact mid-point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Halloween, or Samhain as it was known then, was a day of celebration before winter, which brought the death of life and nature. Those of you who live in climates with distinct weather changes from season to season know how dramatic this is.

Sunset on Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The old year has passed, the harvest has been gathered, cattle and sheep have been brought in from the fields, and the leaves have fallen from the trees. The earth slowly begins to die around us.

At the same time Samhain is a day to honor the ancestors who came before us, marking the dark time of the year. It’s a good time to contact the spirit world because it’s the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest.

Why Halloween?

That’s where the Christian church comes in. Just as Christians co-opted pagan traditions of the winter solstice, yule logs and evergreen trees into their Christmas tradition, the Catholic Church decided to use November 1 as All Saints’ Day starting around the eighth century or so.

This was a clever, calculated move on their part: the local pagans were already celebrating Samhain and their dead ancestors on that day anyway, so it made sense to use it as a church holiday. All Saints’ became the festival to honor any saint who didn’t already have a day of his or her own.

The mass which was said on All Saints’ was called Allhallowmas – the mass of all those who are hallowed. The night before naturally became known as All Hallows’ Eve, and eventually morphed into what we call Halloween.

During the Celtic festival of Samhain, when spirits were believed to pass between worlds, families would invite their ancestors in to their homes but would dress up in costumes and masks in an attempt to scare away the evil spirits. When I was growing up in the U.K., back in the 70s, we used large turnips, rather than pumpkins, to scare away harmful spirits.

Costumes and Candy

Evolving from the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, modern Halloween has become less about literal ghosts and ghouls and more about costumes and candy. How has this holiday transitioned over the millennia from a somber pagan ritual to a day of merriment, costumes, parades and sweet treats for children and adults?

It probably all began in the Middle Ages, when children and sometimes poor adults would dress up in their Samhain costumes and go around door to door during Hallowmas begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers, often said on behalf of the dead. This was called “souling,” and the children were called “soulers.”

“Trick or treating” as a term seems to have emerged in the 1920s in the U.S.

Remember all this when those kids come knocking on your door on October 31, and remember too that, just as in the Celtic tradition, this is a good time to look at wrapping up the old and preparing for the new in our lives.

Think about the things you did in the last twelve months. Have you left anything unresolved? If so, now is the time to wrap things up. Once you’ve gotten all that unfinished stuff cleared away, and out of your life, then you can begin looking towards the next year.

Happy Halloween!

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

131 comments

Carole R.
Carole R2 years ago

Very interesting. I had no idea.

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Marie Helene Z.
Marie Helene Z2 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing :o)

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Helena E.
Helena E2 years ago

thanks for sharing!

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Mary T.
Mary T2 years ago

thanks for the information

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Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin2 years ago

Wow never knew

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cheryl Rodriguez
cheryl Rodriguez2 years ago

Nice to know the history!

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ERIKA SOMLAI
ERIKA S2 years ago

thank you for sharing

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Belinda IsKindToAnimals
Past Member 2 years ago

thanks

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Sonia Minwer Barakat Requ

Great article,very interesting.thanks for sharing

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Teri P.
Teri P2 years ago

Thanks for the history lesson! A blessed Samhain to all.... :)

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