Where Did Halloween Originate?

Updated on August 25, 2017
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Kitty's favorite holiday is Halloween. She's been making her own costumes and studying Halloween as a holiday for over a decade.

Where did Halloween originate?

Samhain, Hallowmas, All Hallows' Eve, Hallowe'en. October 31st, mostly known as Halloween, has had many names throughout the centuries, but the underying roots of the holiday still remain in tact. Whether you know about the origins of Halloween or not, the beginnings of the holiday can be attributed to an Irish Pagan harvest festival known as "Samhain" (pronounced Sah-win or Sow-en).

Where did Halloween originate? Halloween as Americans know it today has many traditions and practices that are a mixture of different cultures; however, the holiday's original purpose as the harvest festival Samhain originated in Ireland. Not only did Ireland celebrate this harvest festival, but other Celtic countries of Celtic times celebrated in their own ways, as well. But for all sakes and purposes, we are going to take a look at Halloween's Pagan origins as they relate to Ireland's Samhain festival.

Halloween's Pagan Origins Explained

It is a common belief with many strict Christians that Halloween's original name Samhain means something along the lines of "Satan's Day"; however, this is factually untrue. The term Samhain actually translates to November, so the name has nothing to do with the Christian Satan. That being said, much of the resentment towards Halloween from strict Christians is probably due to the fact that Samhain was originally known as the night when the "veil between the worlds" was at its thinnest, meaning that the living's dead ancestors could return to earth and walk among the living. In fact, many family Samhain traditions included setting a place at the dinner table for their ancestors who might return on Halloween night. Some Irish folks and even Pagans today still follow this tradition and call it a "dumb supper", as they do not speak during the entire Halloween dinner in honor of dead loves ones and ancestors who went before them. This was only one part of the celebration of Samhain to the Pagan Irish, though.

Again, Samhain was a harvest festival and the last of three harvest festivals, and many Celtic peoples looked at Samhain as the New Year, as it marked the time when the days would wane and the nights would take over the better portion of the day. Deciding what animals were to be slaughtered and how much grain was to be stored was a big part of the Samhain tradition, as Irish families had to prepare for the coming winter months without abundant crop on their land.

Some of the other Irish traditions of Samhain included bonfires, costumes, and lit turnips. The bonfires were believed to be used in which to light the night and the way for the returned dead, as well as the idea that if an Irish family could cast the bones of one of their cattle into the bonfire then that would assure for a good harvest for the next coming year.

As you will watch in the National Geographic's intriguing video of Halloween History to the right, the church became influential over almost the entire continent of Europe by the seventh century, including Ireland, and so Halloween's pagan origins were attempted to be stomped out with the introduction of All Saint's Day on November 1st. But, unbeknownst to the church, Halloween's pagan origins wouldn't be totally lost.

The Irish people, then called Pagans (the word originally meant country-dweller) by the church, still carried on some of their most favorite Halloween traditions, including dressing in costume, bonfires, and bobbing for apples. These Halloween pagan origins continued on into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and were eventually brought to America by Irish imigrants, most especially during the Great Potato Famine in Ireland in the nineteenth century.

In Victorian America, Halloween's pagan origins were being incorporated into the holiday of Halloween, without most people even knowing where Halloween or its traditions originated or why. Bobbing for apples and different forms of divination were popular among the rich folks, as well as parties in which they would perform these Halloween traditions.

An example of divination that was used in the Victorian times include tea-leaf readings and mirror scrying. Women would usually perform these divinations in order to find out who they were going to marry, because whether they realized it or not, Halloween was still considered to be one of the most powerful days in the year. That is how Halloween's pagan origins were brought to America and have stayed instilled in our culture ever since.

The church gave it their all in an attempt to introduce All Saints' Day as a conversion process for leftover pagans who still celebrated Samhain or Halloween pagan traditions, but they couldn't rid the world of Halloween for good. In spite of the winter solstice being taken over by Christmas and the spring equinox (Ostara) being taken over by Easter, Halloween would not be wiped out for All Saints' Day.

So why do you think Halloween is a day wrapped in legends and stories about witches and black cats? The answer is simple - due to Halloween's pagan origins. Anyone in the days of early America who practiced Pagan traditions were most likely thought of to be a "witch" and were in danger in many places of being hung or burned at the stake. Because Halloween was undoubtedly a Pagan holiday, it then became associated with "witches" and their cohorts or familiars, black cats. The church decided to try again to pull the public away from Halloween's pagan origins by spreading stories of witches ruling Halloween night, riding on the winds on their broomsticks and "lying" with the devil.

Well, I guess modern day Pagans can sort of laugh at this attempt, as now the majority of American and other countries' cultures have absorbed the ugly image of the witch into Halloween's culture and enjoy dressing as witches and being frightened by others at the same time!

This Halloween, or Samhain, why not revel in some of the most ancient pagan traditions? Bob for apples, divine with tea leaves, build and enjoy a bonfire, even throw a costume party! Have a harvest feast and enjoy what the earth has provided for us this year. Happy Halloween and Samhain to everyone! Be safe and cautious and most of all...have fun!

Written and copyrighted © by Kitty the Dreamer (May Canfield), 2012. All Rights Reserved.

An Old Spell for All Hallows' Eve

When the white dog is out and trots all about
Under the clouds that are over the moon
And the hag with her broom rides high on the wind,
And the cat on the fence spits even at friends,
Then it is right to conjure a light against
every spirit that shadows the night.

Thus Say:

Let the pumpkin's candle glare
into darkness everywhere,
Burn all evil from the air!

When it is dark and the black trees roar;
Set Jack O' Lantern to watch by the front door.


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  • Coffeequeeen profile image

    Louise Powles 7 months ago from Norfolk, England

    Really interesting. I didn't know the history of Halloween. Thanks.

  • eilval profile image

    Eileen 3 years ago from Western Cape , South Africa

    Enjoyed reading your article - very informative !

  • htodd profile image

    htodd 6 years ago from United States

    This is really interesting ...Thanks for that..

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

    Greekgeek - That is quite lovely. I celebrate Samhain in a very similar way. Thanks for sharing your celebrations with us. Blessed Be and a very Happy Samhain to you!

  • Greekgeek profile image

    Ellen 6 years ago from California

    As a pagan, I don't go as far as the "dumb meal," but I always take time to light a candle and honor my Nana, grandparents, deceased friends and ancestors. I spend an hour or so recollecting them, thinking about them, talking to them and making sure I remember why I love them.

    After all the kids are gone, of course. For me, the magic of Halloween is that it's a celebration of the future -- the children -- and the past -- one's ancestors. A very appropriate way to celebrate what was originally the end of one year on the Celtic calendar and the beginning of the new!

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

    Fullerman - Thanks, so glad you could learn something new from my hub. :) I love Halloween...errr...Samhain!

    Karkadin - Awesome, I didn't know that about the bonfires. Thanks for adding to the hub. I'll have to check out that story, sounds quite intriguing. Thanks for voting, sharing, and reading. :)

    Chatkath - Awww shucks, you don't say! ;) Thanks for being so sweet.

  • Chatkath profile image

    Kathy 6 years ago from California

    Yeah, you did it - or should I say another Halloween masterpiece for Kitty! Very thorough and interesting! Up Useful and Awesome!!

  • profile image

    Karkadin 6 years ago

    The bonfires were also used to re-light all the fireplaces in the community. I love the idea of a community getting together to renew itself for a fresh start in the next year.

    Have you ever read Teig O'Kane and the Corpse? Here's a URL for it: http://www.bartleby.com/166/5.html I read it on Halloween every year, like reading The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve.

    Thanks for the enjoyable hub. Voted up, interesting, beautiful, awesome, and shared.

  • Fullerman5000 profile image

    Ryan Fuller 6 years ago from Louisiana, USA

    I never knew any of this. Definitely learned some things Great work. I really found this interesting and will vote it up and interesting.

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

    Venz - Glad you found the history of Halloween interesting! And I agree.

    St. - My favorite time of year, as well. Though, I don't experience autumn like the rest of the US does...I live in a pretty warm climate. :(

  • profile image

    St.Cyprian 6 years ago

    Great hub!

    Of course, late October and early November is my favorite time of year. And, it is a nice time for spirit communication. It seems like it really more in the air at that time.

  • VENZKHVAM profile image

    VENZKHVAM 6 years ago from Milk way galaxy, trying to find a more adventurous place in another galaxy with my great followers

    Hi KIttythedreamer,

    Actually it is very interesting to know the history of Halloween from Ireland. All the informations were new to me.It is really nice hubs for new fellow to know about the Halloween.

    I enjoyed the photographs and the church incidents and rituals which contributed to the present day Halloween.

    Let this kind things keep sthe human going as they need something to go on. Or else we will be sitting just like that.

    I had voted this up and beautiful.

    Hope to hear from you soon.

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

    MonetteforJack - Yes, well, in some opinions, Samhain is exciting and nice! I'm sure Catholic School taught you that these things were all evil and that this night was an evil night; however, this night is steeped in cultures all over the world...think about the "Day of the Dead" in Mexican culture. The day was set aside to honor the ancestors and yes, of course there were superstitions, but even Christians had superstitions of the pagans of that time...believing that they "slept" with the devil and such. Which were not true. I can understand why this holiday is feared by Christians and Catholics and such, but if we look into the root of the beliefs, the pagan beliefs, we will see that it's not all that scary and evil as we might've been taught. I say so because I was taught these very things in my Christian school...but have learned much deeper about the Celtic pagan festivals...and they're not nearly as bad as they were made out to me. Not saying you're wrong, just maybe you should read about it a little more from an educational standpoint. Thanks so much. I always appreciate your comments. :)

  • MonetteforJack profile image

    MonetteforJack 6 years ago from Tuckerton, NJ

    You made Samhain nice in your hub! Actually in a way, it is nice because it is nice to have a little ceremony to end harvest and prepare for winter. However, from what I was taught in Catholic school, SOME, some pagan Celts used this night for preternatural communication with their dead, do some divinations, false prophesies and sexual rituals. They are called pagans because at that time they shunned the power of the Catholic Church and yes, their rites for their dead are disturbing. As usual, you have an interesting hub, Kitty!

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

    beth - Thanks so much! I like the charm, too...I was hoping someone else would get enjoyment out of it! It is very irritating to know that most people do categorize them as one in the same, but maybe one day that'll change? Who knows...

    Awesome...what a beautiful way to start a life together! Blessed Be.

  • bethperry profile image

    Beth Perry 6 years ago from Tennesee

    Very informative hub and I particularly like the little charm at the end! But it boggles the mind how some cowans still attempt to deliberately confuse witchcraft with Satanism. It is a time of celebration and to invite the spirits of your ancestors to be a part of the celebration.

    Btw, before my husband and I had our official wedding we were handfasted, and on Samhain.

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

    mikeq107 - Too cool, I would've never known about the asking for money thing! Thanks for sharing...I'd much rather have $$$ than candy (most of the time). As for the church maybe forgetting it and the holiday dying out...possibly. But I think people have a sort of drawing to things that go bump in the night...so it might not have died out at the same time. Thanks for reading!

  • profile image

    mikeq107 6 years ago

    Great Hub Love it...as I grew up in Ireland it brought back great memories..I had forgotten about all saints day...nother thing we did as kids in Ireland was we asked for money for halloween..none of the trick or treat as they do here in the Good old USA...I truly believe if the church had just ingnored it ,it would have eventualy died as in the case when you ban something it just draws more attention etc...anyway great hub!!!!!

    Mike :0)