The History of Halloween Part 1
by Dennis Rupert, pastor New Life Community Church of Stafford
Last update: 05/30/2008
This article has been carefully researched in an attempt to separate fact from hype and exaggeration. Sources include scholarly works by folklorists, books by Celtic experts, internet sites, and various reference works. I read and talked with pagan sources to find out how they viewed Halloween, but did not rely upon them for information on the origins of Halloween. I am especially indebted to folklorist W.J. Bethancourt III for initially bringing this history to my attention. I have confirmed his research by my own limited study and highly recommend his site as the first place to view for information on Halloween practices (History of Halloween : Myths, Monsters and Devils).
It’s Probably Not What You Think
On October 31st, you will likely see witches, ghosts, goblins, skeletons, demons, and other evil characters knocking at your door and hollering “trick or treat”, and they will expect a treat or you will be tricked. There will be parties where kids (and even adults) bob for apples, tell fortunes, or go through haunted houses. There will be decorations of jack-o-lanterns, witches on brooms, and black cats. It is the only day of the year when we give free food to strangers and display carved vegetables on our front porches. . . .when you really think about it, October 31st is a very strange day . . .Where did we get this celebration called Halloween?
The Celtic Connection
Our modern celebration of Halloween is a VERY distant descendant of the ancient Celtic fire festival called Samhain. (The word is pronounced “sow-en” rhyming with cow, because “mh” in the middle of an Irish word has a “w” sound.) It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. The Celts (pronounced ‘Kelts”) lived more than 2,000 years ago in what is now Great Britain, Ireland, and France. Their new year began on November 1.
Celtic legends tell us that on this night, all the hearth fires in Ireland were extinguished, and then re-lit from the central fire of the Druids at Tlachtga, 12 miles from the royal hill of Tara. (The Druids were the learned class among the Celts. They were religious priests who also acted as judges, lawmakers, poets, scholars, and scientists.) Upon this sacred bonfire the Druids burned animals and crops. The extinguishing of the hearth fires symbolized the “dark half” of the year. The re-kindling from the Druidic fire was symbolic of the returning life that was hoped for in the spring.
In the Celtic belief system, turning points, such as the time between one day and the next, the meeting of sea and shore, or the turning of one year into the next were seen as magical times. The turning of the year was the most potent of these times. This was the time when the “veil between the worlds” was at its thinnest, and the dead could communicate with the living.
The feast of Samhain is described by MacCane as order suspended. “During this interval the normal order of the universe is suspended, the barriers between the natural and the supernatural are temporarily removed, the sidh lies open and all divine beings and the spirits of the dead move freely among men and interfere sometimes violently, in their affairs” (Celtic Mythology, p. 127).
The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land of eternal youth and happiness called Tir nan Og. They did not have the concept of heaven and hell that the Christian church later brought into the land. The dead were sometimes believed to be dwelling with the Fairy Folk, who lived in the numerous mounds or sidhe (pron. “shee”) that dotted the Irish and Scottish countryside.
The Celts did not actually have demons and devils in their belief system. Some Christians describe Halloween as a festival in which the Celts sacrificed human beings to the devil or some evil demonic god of death. This is not accurate. The Celts did believe in gods, giants, monsters, witches, spirits, and elves, but these were not considered evil, so much as dangerous. The fairies, for example, were often considered hostile and menacing to humans because they were seen as being resentful of men taking over their lands. On this night of Samhain, the fairies would sometimes trick humans into becoming lost in the fairy mounds, where they would be trapped forever.
Folk tradition tells us of some divination practices associated with Samhain. Among the most common were divinations dealing with marriage, weather, and the coming fortunes for the year. These were performed via such methods as ducking for apples and apple peeling. Ducking for apples was a marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year — like the modern toss of the wedding bouquet. Apple peeling was a divination to see how long your life would be. The longer the unbroken apple peel, the longer your life was destined to be. In Scotland, people would place stones or nuts in the ashes of the hearth before retiring for the night. Anyone whose stone had been disturbed during the night was said to be destined to die during the coming year.
Inaccurate Christian Teaching about Halloween
You will often read in the literature published by Christian organizations (such as the tracts and comic books from publisher Jack Chick) that, “Samhain was the Celtic God of the Dead, worshipped by the Druids with dreadful bloody sacrifices at Halloween.” Chick embroiders this fantasy in a tract called “The Trick” and a full-sized comic book called, “Spellbound?”, shown here.
His writings describe evil Druids going from castle-door-to-door seeking virgin princesses to rape and sacrifice, leaving carved pumpkins illuminated by candles (“made from human fat!”) for those who cooperated, and arranging demonic assassinations for those who refused to give them what they wanted. This, according to Mr. Chick, is supposed to be the “true” origin of trick or treating.
Let’s look at a few historical facts:
- Contrary to information published by many Christian organizations, there is no historical or archeological evidence of any Celtic deity of the dead named “Samhain.” We know the names of some 350 Celtic deities and Samhain isn’t found among them. The Celtic gods of the dead were Gwynn ap Nudd for the British, and Arawn for the Welsh. The Irish did not have a “lord of death” as such. McBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language says that “samhuinn” (the Scots Gaelic spelling) means “summer’s end.”It’s not just Christian organizations that perpetuate this fallacy — even the World Book encyclopedia (1990) writes about “Samhain, the Celtic lord of death” (World Book is in discussion with scholars in order to change this in future editions.) This idea is based on a fallacy that seems to have come from Col. Charles Vallency’s books in the 1770s before the reliable translations of existing Celtic literary works and before archaeological excavations. (Col. Charles Vallency also tried to prove that the Irish were descended from the inhabitants of Armenia!) Samhain is the name of the holiday. There is no evidence of any god or demon named “Samhain,” “Samain,” “Sam Hane,” or however you want to vary the spelling.
- Contrary to Christian criticism from many sources, Halloween did not originate as a Satanic festival, but was religious in nature (of course, the religion I am referring to is the Celtic faith of the ancient Druids rather than Christianity). This is an important distinction, for Halloween’s association with Satanic worship is a modern phenomenon. The Celts didn’t worship the devil (or any god of death) on Halloween.It is important to distinguish between paganism and Satanism. Pagans are people who believe in more than one god. Some modern day pagans call themselves Wiccans. [For more on Wicca and modern witchcraft see What is Witchcraft?] Pagans are quick to emphasize that they do not worship Satan or the devil. The devil is a Judeo-Christian concept, they say, because one has to believe in a single God to believe in God’s opposite: “We do not accept the concept of ‘absolute evil,’ nor do we worship any entity known as ‘Satan’ or ‘The Devil.'” (Drawing Down the Moon, pp. 103).Celts were pagans, not Satanists. Of course, from a Christian standpoint both are in error. But to my mind there is a major difference between: (1) pagans (who have not heard the gospel) practicing a holiday containing fairies and elves and (2) Satanists (in rebellion against God) who sacrifice children to the devil. There is no original evidence to indicate that Samhain was any more Satanic than pagan harvest festivals of other religions, like the Romans or the Greeks.
- We have no evidence any where (from tradition, Celtic texts, or archaeology) that virgin princesses or any one else were being offered to the lord of death on Halloween.There is general agreement that the Celts did in fact practice some form of human sacrifice or human execution, but this seems to have been limited to criminals, prisoners-of-war, or volunteers. (For more information on human sacrifice and the Druids see History of Halloween : Myths, Monsters and Devils.) We have no evidence that Druids practiced human sacrifice on Halloween (let alone sacrificed “virgin princesses”).
- The pumpkin is a New World plant that never grew in Europe until modern times, so it couldn’t have been used to make jack-o-lanterns by the Druids.
An exhaustive Victorian survey of Irish calendar customs mentions divination games and apple bobbing as Halloween pastimes, but says nothing about food collection or a procession of “spirits.”…On the question of masked begging at the Celtic New Year, authorities on the Druids do not say a word. (Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, p. 83).
Where did costuming at Halloween come from? There is a lot of confusion on this point. But in spite of what you may have read in an encyclopedia or seen on the History Channel, I can find absolutely NO historical evidence of costumed begging among the Druids or as part of the Samhain festival.
We do have records of costumed processions in a much later time (Christian times), but these costumed processions were NOT limited to the Halloween holiday. They appear much more frequently at Christmas. The earliest actual historic practice seems to have been poor folk in masks and costumes going from house to house. They would put on a simple play or musical performance in return for food and drink. This practice is called mumming or guising and has no discernable connection to the Celts.
You may be surprised to learn that your parents or grandparents know nothing about costuming on Halloween. A reader sent me this email:
You mentioned in your article that the American custom came about in the 1930s as a reaction to vandalism. My parents were kids in New York City in those days, and I started looking for more info because of a comment my mom made on Halloween night. It seems that Halloween as we know it did not exist at the time–it was all pranks, as you mentioned (my mom mentioned taking gates off posts and moving outhouses, as you did, and my dad said that in the days of coal fuel there were big cans of ashes that the kids would tip over–a big mess).
The interesting part was that both of them said (Dad was born in 1924 and Mom in 1927) that each year as kids, they did go from door to door begging for food–but it was on Thanksgiving Day, not Halloween! My mom said that rather than “Trick or Treat!” their line at each door was “Anything for the poor? Anything for the poor?” They were given fruit, nuts, a cup of cider, or the occasional coin–that sort of thing.
This email is similar to conversations with my own father and mother (born 1928 and 1930 in western Pennsylvania), who told me that no one dressed in costumes or went door-to-door when they were children. There were lots of pranks on Halloween (some of which make great stories for the grandchildren), but they know nothing of dressing up. So where did costuming come from? That’s a big question mark. Folklorist Tad Tuleja says that costume parties are frequently mentioned in the early decades of the 1900s (but nothing about going door-to-door in costume). The costume parties themselves seem to be an attempt to involve children in disciplined “fun” as opposed to destructive “fun.”
- The actual phrase “trick or treat” is not Druidic! The earliest known reference in print dates only to 1938 in an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Halloween Pranks Plotted by Youngsters of Southland,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), October 30, 1938, p. A8: “Trick or treat!” is the Halloween hijacking game hundreds of Southern California youngsters will play tomorrow night as they practice streamlined versions of traditional Allhallows Eve pranks.” The phrase is not recorded by the Merriam-Webster Company until 1941. And the term is actually American, not European (Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, p. 47,86-90)!It’s not only the phrase that is American, the practice is too! In America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a custom of playing pranks on Halloween. This custom appears to have come from immigrants from Ireland and Scotland which had a practice called Mischief Night. Favorite pranks included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates (Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things). The pleasant fiction was that such rambunctiousness was the work of “fairies,” “elves,” “witches” and “goblins” (Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, p. 87). That’s the “trick” part of Halloween.
Where did the “treat” part of Halloween come from? Jill Pederson Meyer writes:
“By the turn of the century, Halloween had become an ever more destructive way to “let off steam” for crowded and poor urban dwellers. As Stuart Schneider writes in ‘Halloween in America’ (1995), vandalism that had been limited to tipping outhouses; removing gates, soaping windows and switching shop signs, by the 1920’s had become nasty — with real destruction of property and cruelty to animals and people. Perhaps not coincidentally, the disguised nighttime terrorism and murders by the Ku Klux Klan reached their apex during this decade. Schneider writes that neighborhood committees and local city clubs such as the Boy Scouts then mobilized to organize safe and fun alternatives to vandalism. School posters of the time call for a “Sane Halloween.” Good children were encouraged to go door to door and receive treats from homes and shop owners, thereby keeping troublemakers away. By the 1930’s, these “beggar’s nights” were enormously popular and being practiced nationwide, with the “trick or treat” greeting widespread from the late 1930s.”
The Halloween begging activity known as trick-or-treat comes from America in the 1930s, not the British Isles. The custom was intended to control and displace disruptive pranks.
Every year, right around Halloween, we are treated to an outpouring of literature making false statements about the origins of Halloween. (In years past, I even helped distribute this type of literature to my congregation.) But my research on this subject has found that the Christian Halloween literature is vastly mistaken. Christians are guilty of spreading falsehood (perhaps out of ignorance, but falsehood none the less). Believers do no service to God or to other Christians by creating very frightening fantasies masquerading as historical facts. Sloppy and improper scholarship makes Christians look deceitful. It also makes God appear deceptive to unbelievers.
What I am arguing for is accurate information, rather than falsehood. No, I’m not a “closet pagan.” No, I’m not “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” No, I haven’t “bought into pagan propaganda.” I’m a born-again, fundamentalist, Bible-believing, filled with the Spirit Christian (did I use enough labels?) trying to get at the historical truth.
At the Christian college I attended, I was taught that all truth was God’s truth and that we don’t need to fear truth — whether it comes from secular, pagan, or Christian sources. Over a period of years I have been reading and talking with folklorists, historians, Christians, pagans, and people from Scotland and Ireland. The origins of Halloween are NOT what most Christian literature teaches. Sorry, no pumpkins with candles of human fat! Sorry, no human sacrifices by evil druids. Sorry, dressing up can’t be historically connected to the Celts. Sorry, treat-or-treat is not a Satanist plot to captivate our children.
Continued in The History of Halloween Part 2
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