Cultures Revealed: Celtic Samhain

If you are curious about where some of the traditional Halloween customs originated from, you will have to go back over 2,000 years to ancient Celtic cultures in places like Ireland and Scotland.  Samhain, loosely translated to summer’s end, is a popular holiday from the Coligny calendar to celebrate the Gaelic Harvest Festival that marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.  Samhain later became associated with the Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day. It was custom to celebrate the holiday by having large bonfires where the bones of livestock, slaughtered for winter eating and storage, were cast into the fires. A large Samhain feast was also part of the festivities where family members would tell stories of their ancestors and often designate seats at the dinner table for the dead.  These activities also influenced the belief that the physical and supernatural worlds were closest during this time of year and magical things were entirely possible.

Samhain, usually celebrated over the course of several days in late October/early November, has several traditions where you can see direct influence on how we celebrate Halloween today.  For example:

  • During the festival, particularly during the bonfire celebrations, it became Gaelic tradition to wear costumes and masks to ward off (or perhaps imitate) evil spirits
  • Candle lanterns, made from hollowed out turnips, were carved with faces and placed in windows to also ward off evil spirits
  • A popular activity for children, called guising (in disguise), involved going door to door in costumes carrying their turnip lanterns and offering entertainment, such as dancing or singing, in exchange for food for the impending winter season
  • Divination, or fortune telling, became common practice during the Samhain celebrations.  For example, apples were peeled and tossed over one’s shoulder to see if the shape formed the letter of a possible future spouse’s first name.  Or nuts were roasted to interpret their movements, which indicated how long a couple would stay together.


TOPIC: Festivals/Holidays
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