Halloween began as a pagan festival in the British Isles. It spread across the Atlantic with Irish immigration, and has become one of the most popular holidays in North America.

Origins of Halloween

Ireland is the birthplace of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), the occasion that we now recognize as Halloween. Ancient Celts originally observed Samhain at the first frost, which usually fell near the end of October. Samhain was an agricultural fire festival dedicated to the harvest and the dead that marked the end of summer and the impending start of winter. The time of Samhain was used to take stock of food supplies and to decide which animals should be slaughtered to ensure the survival of the people through the winter. When assessing their needs for the upcoming cold season, the Celts sought the assistance of the Sídhe, or spirits, whom they believed appeared during Samhain. People lit large bonfires and, to ward off evil spirits, would cast into the fires the bones of the animals they had slaughtered.

In 835 AD, Pope Gregory IV moved the Christian observance of All Saints’ Day from the spring to November 1. There is some disagreement as to why, but he may have been trying to Christianize pagan celebrations of the dead, which, with the adoption of the Roman calendar, had started being held every year on the same date – October 31. Because of this overlap between pagan and Christian traditions, the festival of the dead became closely associated with the seemingly contradictory festival of saints.

When the Irish immigrated to North America in the mid-nineteenth century following the Potato Famine, the traditions of Samhain came with them, later becoming Halloween.

Halloween Traditions

Halloween continues to be very popular in Ireland. In many areas it is still customary to set a place for the dead at the Samhain feast table. Both adults and children dress up as ghosts, ghouls, goblins, zombies and witches. Children visit their neighbors to gather treats. The tradition is slightly different in Scotland, where children must perform in some way to receive a “treat.” This Scottish custom may have led to North American “trick or treating.”

Bobbing for apples, a Halloween game sometimes played in North America, originated with Samhain. The Celts associated apples with the goddess of love and believed that the first person to catch an apple was the next person to get married.

The jack o’ lantern has an interesting history. The name comes from an Irish legend about a farmer named Jack who marked a cross on a tree to trap the devil in it. He agreed to release the devil if the devil promised never to let Jack into Hell. At his death, the devil indeed denied Jack entry to Hell. With his past behavior ensuring that Heaven was not an option, Jack was left with nowhere to go. He carved a lantern from a turnip (a common practice in Britain) and walked the earth looking for a resting place. He became known as “Jack of the Lantern.”

It is believed by many people that the Irish used jack o’lanterns to ward off evil spirits at Halloween, but this claim is being disputed by some historians who believe that the association between carved pumpkins and Halloween emerged in North America. North Americans were in the habit of carving pumpkin lanterns at the time of harvest. In the 1830’s the term “jack o’lantern” started being used to describe these lanterns, and their association with Halloween began about 30 years after that. The term is not commonly used outside of North America.


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