Halloween Lore

by Stacy Overby

31 Days of Halloween - Oct 30 - Halloween Lore

“31 Days of Halloween” wouldn’t be complete without an article on the history behind some of the traditions. And when Stacy Overby pitched the idea, I jumped at the chance to bring you this post.

Over To Our Guest
Stacy Overby

Halloween. Samhain. It’s the holiday so many love that it’s become almost as big as Christmas. Many of our Halloween traditions are rooted in the old pagan holiday Samhain. Common knowledge for most, I know. But there’s more to this story than what many people realize. Come on a little journey with me and test your knowledge of Halloween lore.

What Did Samhain Celebrate in Celtic Culture?

Halloween Samhain
Yes, most people get Halloween comes from the Celtic pagan celebration of Samhain. You might even know that Samhain is the time where Celtic peoples celebrated the thinning of the veil between this world and the Otherworld. They believed this thinning allowed ghosts to cross over into this world. Yet, this is the extent many people understand of what Samhain was and what it celebrated. It was the last of the major harvest celebrations and a celebration of the New Year. They also saw this as a transition to the dark half of the year with winter’s arrival with its shorter daylight hours. Ancient texts show this was a mandatory celebration that could lead to consequences for failing to attend. Most often, those consequences included illness or death.

What Role Did Fire Play in Samhain Celebrations?

Samhain celebrations held fire as a significant symbol for Celtic peoples. It was so powerful a symbol, families would allow their hearth fires to go out at the start of the Samhain celebration. The druids lit the communal bonfires that burned throughout the celebration, which was often at least several days long. At the end, families took brands from that fire to relight their hearths. They thought doing this would protect them in the coming year. Fire also stood as a symbolic connection to the sun. As such, this was a festival, along with the other three major fire festivals, of great spiritual significance.

Were the Ancient Celts Afraid of the Ghosts and Fairies?

Trick question! The correct answer is yes and no. They were afraid of the ghosts and fairies as they believed the Sidhe to be tricky and mischief-makers. Therefore, they left offerings of food and drink out to distract the Sidhe away from the Celts’ cattle, property, and people. If they had to go outside, ancient Celts would dress in masks to hide their identity. They also hoped the masks would help them look like the Sidhe to blend in and pass unnoticed. However, they also welcomed the ghosts of their ancestors into their homes. Celtic peoples would set extra places at the table for them, leave doors and windows open all night for them, and more. Ancient Celts saw this as an opportunity to maintain their relationships with those who had passed on to the Otherworld.

Where Did the Name Halloween Come From?


Since Samhain sounds nothing like Halloween, it can be a conundrum for people. However, when you factor in the Romans’ influence on the holiday, it makes more sense. The Romans had several similar holidays honoring their ancestors and marking important harvest times. Feralia was the Roman celebration of the dead. They held this celebration in October. The Romans also had a day to celebrate their goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. So, when Rome conquered Celtic lands, the blending of these three celebrations came as a natural consequence. You’re right, it doesn’t explain Halloween, at least not yet. Stick with me. Then, in about 1000 A.D., after Christianity had spread to Celtic lands, the Pope declared November 2nd All Souls Day. At its heart, this is the Christian version of Samhain and Feralia—a day of celebrating those who have passed on. Some hypothesize this was an attempt by the Christian church to supplant the pagan holidays. Either way, the Christian church would hold a mass on November 1st, called the All Hallows’ Mass, as part of All Souls Day. In Middle English it was Alholowmesse. From this root word, it doesn’t take nearly as much imagination to see how we’ve ended up with the word Halloween, does it?

But What About Bobbing for Apples?
Where Did That Come From?

Ah, the bobbing for apples game. Quite the popular fall/Halloween tradition for a long time. We owe this Halloween staple to the Romans. You remember Pomona from the last question? Her symbol was the apple. So, historians believe this connection may be the root for this game. However, there is another explanation for the game. In ancient Britain, they used apple bobbing as a way of trying to predict who a young woman might marry. There were several variations, but most of them boil down to this. A young woman attempts to get an apple representing a specific beau. The number of attempts she made signified how successful the relationship might be. Sometimes, rather than a specific beau, the apple represented how soon she might marry, with the first to bite from it being the first to marry. Eventually this game faded from Celtic culture, at least for a while. Americans exploring their Celtic roots are given credit for the game’s revival. Though it’s unclear how they tied it to Halloween despite the game’s romantic roots.

And the Ever-Popular Trick or Treating,
How Did That Start?

Trick Or Treat

What is more quintessential to Halloween than dressing up and going door to door looking for candy? It just wouldn’t be Halloween without it. While we’ve covered some origins of costumes in this discussion, we have yet to hit on this tradition at the very heart of Halloween as we celebrate it. Remember how we said this holiday has strong ties to ghosts, particularly ghosts of family members who have passed? Well, the ancient Irish and Scots had an interesting tradition in the days that led up to Samhain. In Ireland it was called mumming. People would dress up and go door to door. At each house they would stop and sing to the dead. Those who lived in the house paid the mummers in cakes, sometimes called soul cakes. It’s easy to see how this ancient tradition became the trick or treat staple we love today.

Thanks for Playing!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through time, exploring how Halloween became what we all know and love today. From the ancient Celts to more modern Scots and Irish, it’s a long and twisting journey between Samhain and Halloween. How did you do on the quiz? Tell me how it went and what you learned!

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About Stacy Overby

Stacy Overby - Author

Stacy Overby is the author of Scath Oran, a dark fantasy poetry collection, Tattoos, a space opera, and multiple short stories and poems featured in anthologies. She is a graphic designer at www.threefuriespress.com. Her day job working in Addiction Medicine provides inspiration for many of her stories. When not at work or writing, she and her husband are playing with their son, hiking, camping, or involved in other outdoor activities – if it is not too cold. She, along with her social media contacts, can be found at www.thisisnothitchhikersguide.com.

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31 Days of Halloween - Coming This October

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