Halloween and its Celtic origins

Trick or treat!

Those who know me well will know that I just LOVE Halloween. Not only is autumn my favourite season because of its auburn leaves, roasting chestnuts and crisp weather, but also because I absolutely love indulging in its festivities- from the spooky surprises to the endless amounts of sweets. What’s more, I am crazy about dressing up. Deep down I’m still like a little girl standing in front of her dress-up box every time Halloween swings around.

The other day my friends and I were talking with someone from Madrid, and just like the good 90s Galicians that we were brought up to be (this tradition saw a resurgence during this period), we taught them the word Samhain. Our friend stared at us in amazement. “What on earth is that?” he asked to our surprise.

Cultures merge, adapt and evolve with each other. With the great rise of the United States and globalisation, it is not surprising that here in Spain we have adopted some of their customs over time. Interestingly enough, we have taken on a North American holiday that had originally been integrated to the US from somewhere else; a holiday that has its origins right here in Europe. In this blog, we will take a dive into this holiday and its curious beginnings.


The origins of Halloween: Samhain

Coming from Celtic origins, Samhain is a pagan festival that commemorates the autumn equinox; the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “dark half of the year” and, as some authors have suggested, the beginning of a new year for Celtic people. During the festival, it was believed that the veil that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead was thinner than at other times of the year. Spirits, souls and fairies could therefore easily come to our world, with the intention of visiting their loved ones. The festive was rooted in offerings and sacrifices. The dead would return home in search of hospitality and the living would frighten away evil spirits with terrifying masks and fire.

With the Romanisation of Celtic villages, the traditions of these peoples were changed and were adapted to Roman traditions and beliefs. These practices preceded Christianisation and included traditions such as partaking in the harvest festival in honour of the goddess Pomona, to whom people gave thanks for the food they received in the harvest. Parts of the Roman influence can be seen in the celebration of Halloween, in which it is very common to eat apples and play with them.


Assimilation to Christianity

With the expansion and settlement of Christianity as the main religion in Europe, the Church considered all pagan festivities as heresy and began their arduous process of converting them to Christianity. The Yuletide, for example, became Christmas and All Saints Day, which was originally celebrated in May, was moved to November 1.

The Christian festival All Saints Day falls within the Allhallowtide; a word that refers to the 3 days from October 31st to November 3rd and which encompasses all the different legendary customs that are celebrated during Halloween, All Saints’ Day and the Day of the Dead.


Samhain in the USA

As a festival with European roots, Samhain landed in Canada and the United States with Scottish and Irish pilgrims and, arriving in the nineteenth century, saw massive development and dissemination with its old traditions being maintained. Samhain was called All Hallows’ Eve, and from there on became known as Halloween.

Today Halloween, as we know it, has completely lost all the features of being a religious festival and has a notably secular character about it. Nowadays no deity is worshipped and no ancestors are honoured. However, it is a day that forms part of modern-day entertainment, where goblins, witches, ghosts and the most terrifying monsters come out of legends and books and walk among the living for one night only. Of course, being that Halloween also has a great attraction for both children and adults and is incredibly profitable, it’s not surprising that we ended up (re)adopting it in Europe.


Pumpkins…or turnips?

We all associate Halloween with pumpkins and the scary (or not so scary) faces we carve into them, don’t we? In fact, the use of Jack O’ Lanterns is based on the legend of Jack the Irishman, a drunk who one night had the misfortune of meeting the devil. Jack asked the devil for one last drink in exchange for his soul, to which the king of hell agreed. However, old Jack was a cunning man and managed to trick the devil into not taking his soul.

Jack, who with his incredible tricks had defeated Devil, had unknowingly sealed his own destiny. When he died, the entrance to Heaven was forbidden to him because of the way he had lived his life, and the Devil could not receive him in Hell because he had promised that he would never take his soul away. Jack was therefore forced to wander the earth. However, the Devil was kind enough to give him a piece of coal from hell to light up his nights. Jack put the coal in a pumpkin and legend has it that still to this day, Jack wanders around every year on Halloween night.

However, the pumpkin tradition came about not too many centuries ago in the United States, where Samhain, already influenced by Roman traditions (the Church never really managed to stop it being celebrated), was adapted to the culture of the country. Pumpkins, originally from America, were much easier to empty and carve than the previously used turnips.

Poor Jack, who in other versions of the legend carried a turnip instead of a pumpkin, must have really had to break a sweat to get that turnip emptied (mind out of the gutter, please) before the wind blew out the infernal coal. Can you imagine that instead of pumpkins with sinister faces we had turnips? If it came down to gutting a turnip to make a face in it or simply just chopping it up for nice soup, I’m almost certain no one would want to end up with something like this hanging around in their house:


Nabo vaciado para Samhain

Irish turnip from the 19th century, exhibited at the National Museum of Ireland.

Trick or Treat

The evolution of Samhain, due to the cultural appropriation that it has gone through, has meant that the traditions and customs seen around the world on Halloween are very diverse. After pumpkins, the first thing that would no doubt come to mind would be the famous Trick or Treat; children going from house to house in disguise, asking for sweets and threatening to play a trick if they don’t get any. This tradition, which is slowing gaining traction over here too (although not in such a big way), also has its origin in Samhain. During this festivity, the Celts went from house to house, dressed in costumes, and sang songs to the dead, receiving cakes as a reward.


It is difficult to know for sure the facts surrounding this festivity. We don’t know much about its later assimilation into Christianity and dissemination throughout the United States due to a lack of written Celtic sources and due to the inconsistencies from later historians about the period. However, I invite you to do a quick (or not so quick) search online; I assure you there is a lot to discover!


Translated by Christian Copeland

About Xerezade Ansedes López

Graduate Degree in Translation and Interpreting from Universidade de Vigo, Spain. Degree in English Language and German from Bangor University, UK. English teacher and translator and proofreader in the German and English to Spanish combinations. Published author.

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