Samhain and the Early Years Of Halloween

The history of Halloween reveals that the earliest years of the holiday are dramatically different from how the holiday is currently celebrated by most people. While there are various subcultures that still celebrate Halloween as the ancients once did, most people only stick to some of the most current traditions associated with the holiday. You may be surprised by how different the early days of Halloween were when compared to how the holiday is currently recognized.

Ancient History Of Halloween: The Earliest Years

The ancient Gauls or Celts were the first to have celebrated a day identified as Samhain. It is believed that the name of the holiday is derived from the word Samonios; it was the beginning of a New Year for the Celts, and it is a time that marked the second half of the year. The ancient Gaulish people did not celebrate four seasons, but two, each representing the light or dark half of the year; rightly so, Samhain fell during the time marked by darkness and became a holiday associated with the diminishment of light, darkness, and death. Since the season grew colder and plants began to die off during this time, Samhain marked the early entrance into the wintry season and easily became associated with death and the deceased. In ancient times, Samonios or Samhain was a three day celebration marked with customs that paid respect to deceased ancestors and involved giving thanks to the harvest one received from the spring and summer seasons.

The year of the Celts was divided into two parts: Beltaine and Samhain. Beltaine was celebrated on May 1 every year as Samhain was celebrated on November 1st. Samhain is not only a marking of the season of death, but of rebirth too since new beginnings are derived from endings. Some scholars trace the etymology of Samhain to the Gaelic word for Samhuinn that literally comes to mean “summer’s end.” Ancient peoples celebrated the holiday and identified it with different names; in Wales for instance, the holiday was considered the evening of the beginning of winter and was called Nos Calan Gaeaf. The holiday has also been referred to as Hollantide, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

History Of Halloween: Celtic Traditions Continued And Transformed

Samhain was a time that marked the end of the yearly harvest; as people gathered up apples, turnips, wheat, oats, barley, berries, and other harvested foods, they were preparing for the harshness of the cold season. The ancient peoples were readying for winter, gathering wood and peat for winter fires, salting foods, and working together in unison to ensure all was prepared for the arrival of winter.

The early Irish peoples celebrated with their tribes at a feast called the Feast of Tara. This festival involved the placement of the High King on his thrown and the marking of the new year to come. All fires were put out and the ancient Druids were responsible for lighting the first fire of the New Year. This first fire was lit on a hill positioned twelve miles northwest of Tara in Tlachtga. This place was considered sacred since it was a burial ground where the Ancient Druid Mogh Ruith’s daughter was buried, and who may have been seen as a form of the feminine Divine at that time.

Customs of the ancient holiday included the lighting of bonfires, the casting of personalized objects into the fire for the granting of prayers, and the ancient Scottish often danced around the bonfire in celebration. Ashes that remained from bonfires were used to protect future harvests too; they were liberally spread over the fields to ensure their future protection. Today, bonfires are still common in Ireland and the British Isles around this season, used to celebrate both Samhain and Guy Fawkes Day.

The Christians changed the Celtic holiday and integrated the customs into Christian celebrations. November first became a day revered as All Saints Day or All Souls Day; a day used to honor the deceased, saints, and martyrs. Prayers were offered to those ancestors that had passed away the year prior so that they may be freed from Purgatory and go to heaven. The day would be marked by the ringing of Church bells and the offering of prayers; this was popular when the Catholic faith was the dominant religion of the time. When Protestantism became the dominant Christian faith, the ringing of Church bells was no longer permitted on the holiday. Nevertheless, this did not stop those that wanted to offer up prayers for deceased ancestors from doing so.

Onward toward the sixteenth century, people still offered prayers for those that had died. Sometimes these prayers were offered while one performed a rite outdoors with bonfires lit; this draws back to ancient Gaulish practices where all fires in a town were extinguished except for the large bonfires that were lit for the entire community.

More On The Ancient History Of Halloween

During the Roman times, Samhain became known as All Hallows’ Day and All Souls Day; the days were celebrated on November 1st and 2nd respectively. Thus, gradually, Halloween, falling on October 31st, became All Hallow’s Eve. As mentioned earlier, October 31st was celebrated by the Welsh peoples and it was a celebration commencing at sunset on the 31st of October.

The Cornish peoples also had a holiday that was similar to Samhain; it was identified as Nos Calan Gwaf or Allantide. The latter celebration was also associated with the Cornish Saint Arlan or St Allen. There may be some traditions from other Celtic festivals that have merged into Halloween traditions over time too. For instance, the celebration Hop-tu-Naa commonly marked the Celtic New Year for the Celts. At this time, people would go to their neighbors’ home and they would be given money and sweets. Today, this tradition may be seen in the more modern idea of trick or treating and requesting candy.

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