The History Behind Our Favorite Halloween Traditions
6 Halloween Customs That Originated With the Ancient Celts
The ancient Celts have a near-monopoly on things that go bump in the night. Werewolves. The Headless Horseman. Dracula. Yes, there are cases to be made that all of these monsters have their roots in Celtic mythology. And really, it’s not that surprising.
For centuries — millennia, even — the Celts have had a healthy obsession with ghost stories and fairy tales. What’s more, they invented the spookiest festival of all time, Samhain, which — after tinkering from Christian hijackers — would eventually become the harvest-time holiday we know and love today: Halloween.
But let’s take a step back. Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year, was widely celebrated in Goidelic- or Gaelic-speaking Celtic regions of northwestern Europe, including Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man (where it was known as “Sauin”). Similar festivals were held at the same time in the Brittonic- or Brythonic-speaking Celtic regions. These were the festivals of Kalan Goañv in Brittany, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall, and Calan Gaeaf in Wales.
Now, because the Celts measured their days from sunset to sunset, Samhain (and its equivalents) began on the evening of October 31st and continued through November 1st. What exactly happened during the festival? You’re about to find out. But, suffice it to say, invading Christians felt sufficiently threatened by all the pagan rabble-rousing going on that they claimed November 1st for their own holiday: All Saints’ Day a.k.a. All Hallows. Naturally, the evening preceding All Hallows became known as “All Hallows Eve,” which, after a few whiskeys and ciders, sounds like “Halloween.”
Of course, as many of you may already know, Christianizing Celtic peoples was no easy task. Despite the best efforts of kings and clergy to suppress Celtic culture, many Samhain traditions carry on to this day. And I, for one, think that’s a good thing — because Halloween would be pretty lame without them.