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27 Oct 2017

The Celtic roots of Halloween

Trick or treating is upon us again, and we hope you have a wonderful time with your kids dressing up and carving the pumpkins. But where does our Halloween tradition really come from and what did it mean before it became just another marketing bandwagon?

The origins link back to the festival of Samhain in Ireland’s Celtic past. Samhain was a fire festival celebrated on the evening of 31 October and through the next day. It carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new, a time when crops were put in storage for the long winter ahead, and livestock were brought in from the fields.

It was also the time when the souls of the dead would return to their former homes, and malevolent spirits were released from the Otherworld and became visible to mankind.

The root of the word Samhain — sam means summer, while fuin means end. Celts believed that the passage of a day began with darkness and progressed into the light, which explains why winter, the season of long, dark nights, marked the beginning of the year for them. Samhain, on November 1, was the Celtic New Year, and the party began at sunset the day before.

Harvest was celebrated by the Romans with a festival dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of tree fruits, and the origin of Halloween’s special menu of apple bobbing and toffee apples could date from this period.

Pomona was celebrated long after Christianity arrived in Roman Europe, and the seventh century Pope Boniface hijacked it by declaring November 1 All Saiints Day, also known as All Hallows Days. The night before became known as Hallows’ Eve.

For Celts, the night was the threshold between the old year and the new one, and the boundaries between the Otherworld and the human world became less secure, so that banshees, fairies and spirits could come and go.

To ward off the evil, huge bonfires were lit and people wore ugly masks and disguises to confuse the spirits and stop the dead identifying people they had disliked during their own lifetime. They also made a lot of noise to unsettle the spirits and drive them away. Some, however, would leave out food, hoping their generosity would appease the spirits…

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