The Celtic History Behind Our Favorite Halloween Traditions: 6 Samhain Rituals That Refuse to Die

photo of lantern in a spooky fall setting

Irish Myths is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission.

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.

6 Halloween Customs That Originated With the Ancient Celts

1) Bobbing for Apples

Why do we bob for apples on Halloween?

illustration of children sitting around a barrel full of apples floating in water
“Halloween – Bobbing for Apples, 1908” (source: Creative Commons)

Nothing says “Halloween fun” quite like plunging your face into a bucket of water in the hopes of getting an apple wedged between your teeth like you’re some kind of prized pig preparing yourself for a roast. I mean, seriously… where the hell did this bizarre, semi-aquatic autumnal custom come from?

Go back a couple of centuries, and you might have witnessed courtly lords and ladies bobbing for apples in an effort to foretell their romantic futures. In Britain, a common version of the game was to have each floating apple correspond to a potential mate. Young women would take turns aiming their chompers at the apples named for the young men they fancied. Get the apple on the first try, and the relationship was bound to blossom. Get it on the second try, and sparks would fly at first but then the relationship would fizzle. Get it on the third try, and the poor young lady might as well spit it out — the relationship just wasn’t meant to be.

In Ireland, apple bobbing is more commonly known as “snap apple.” This variation of the game typically sees players lunging teeth-first at apples suspended from strings rather than having them thrashing around in buckets of water. In his 18th-century work Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, British military surveyor Charles Vallancey, who was stationed in Ireland, describes the game, noting that young unmarried people would compete to determine who would be the next to marry. The first to sink their teeth into a dangling apple would be walking down the aisle in no-time.

Clearly, bobbing for apples originated as a courtship ritual — a game for divining the future romantic entanglements of the players. But what does that have to do with Halloween, or its predecessor, Samhain? I’ll let journalist Alison Richards explain:

The specific connection between apples, fortune-telling and Halloween goes back to the Celtic festival Samhain. It fell around the end of our modern October, and marked the end of summer, the end of harvest and — revelers worried — perhaps the extinction of life itself. To encourage the sun deity to return the following year, ancient Celts burned huge bonfires into the night and tied apples to evergreen branches…

According to this tradition, barriers to the Underworld were temporarily suspended… It was a time when divination was supposedly especially powerful.

source: “The Secret, Steamy History Of Halloween Apples” (NPR)

So there you have it: apples hanging from tree branches, fortune-telling abilities believed to be at full-strength — the ingredients were there for a tradition like apple bobbing to develop. 

It should also be mentioned that apples have a special place in Irish mythology. For example, the sea-god Manannán Mac Lir is said to rule a paradisiacal island called Emain Ablach (“Emain of the apple trees’), where apple trees bear fruit and blossoms simultaneously. What’s more, the voyage of the famed Irish hero Bran begins with a mysterious woman giving him a silver branch with a white blossom from one of Emain Ablach’s trees.

The story of Emain Ablach would go on to influence another apple-filled island paradise: Avalon, from Arthurian legend. In Welsh, Avalon is called Ynys Afallach (“lsle of Afallach”). The Welsh word for apple is afall.

But enough about apples. Everyone knows the *real* symbol of Halloween is the pumpkin… right?

2. Carving Pumpkins

Why do we carve pumpkins on Halloween?

photo of hollowed-out pumpkin next to bowl of seeds and pumpkin guts
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I’ve already explored this subject in-depth in my article on the history of the jack-o’-lantern, so here’s the abridged version:

Long before anyone was carving pumpkins on Halloween, the ancient Irish were carving faces into turnips, beets, and potatoes on Samhain and sticking coals or candles inside of them to create lanterns. According to Irish folklore, this was done to commemorate the suffering of Stingy Jack, a bastard of a blacksmith who tricked the devil and, as a result, was cursed to wander the bogs for all eternity with only a carved turnip lantern to light his way. That’s the origin of the name jack-o’-lantern (Jack of the Lantern), and it was originally used to describe the phenomenon of ignis fatuus (a.k.a “will-o’-the-wisps” a.k.a.” fairy lights” a.k.a. “fool’s fire”), wherein gases released by decomposing organic matter combust above peat bogs.

But enough about flaming bog farts. Here’s how jack-o’-lanterns became associated with Halloween:

On Samhain, fires were supposed to be extinguished and rekindled from ceremonial fires lit by druids. To facilitate the transfer of this fire, coals were placed into lanterns made from root vegetables. (Remember: Samhain marked the end of the harvest season, so there were plenty of root vegetables to go around.) As Nathan Mannion, senior curator of Dublin’s Irish Emigration Museum, explains:

Metal lanterns were quite expensive, so people would hollow out root vegetables. Over time people started to carve faces and designs to allow light to shine through the holes without extinguishing the ember.

source: National Geographic

The carved faces also served another purpose: to scare away any vengeful spirits, demons, fairies, etc. that happened to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld during Samhain, as the evening of October 31st was believed to be a time when the barriers between the land of the living and the land of the dead became permeable.

Flash forward to the 19th century, and millions of Irish immigrants bring their tradition of carving root vegetables on Halloween with them to North America. Only, when they get here, they discover a rotund native vegetable that is much better suited to the art form: the pumpkin. The rest, as they say, is Halloween history.

3. Decorating With Black and Orange

Why are black and orange the colors of Halloween?

photo of a black and orange "eat drink and be scary" sign
Photo by Bee Felten-Leidel on Unsplash

At first glance, this one seems self-explanatory: black is scary and orange is the color of pumpkins. So, naturally, they became Halloween’s go-to color combo. Put a black and orange bow on it, this mystery has been solved. Except…that’s not it. That’s not it at all.

In order to understand why black and orange became the colors of Halloween, we once again need to look back to Halloween’s Celtic progenitor, Samhain. Let’s tackle black first.

Turns out, black wasn’t associated with Samhain because it’s the color of spookiness, but because it’s the color of death and mourning. And what is Samhain if not a celebration of death? The festival is centered around the dead who have passed on to the Celtic Otherworld (but who might make an appearance on the evening of October 31st) as well as the figurative death of the sun as winter approaches. To quote Whiskey Stevens, author of Rise of the Witch:

Black is a representation of the dark months that come with winter.

source: “What Are the Halloween Colors and What Do They Mean?” Reader’s Digest

So, what about orange? It’s gotta be the pumpkins right? Making jack-o’-lanterns, after all, has been a Samhain tradition for centuries. But remember: in the last section, we learned that Celtic peoples originally used root vegetables for making jack-o’-lanterns. Pumpkin-carving came later. And by then, orange had already been well-established as a color of Halloween. 

What gives?

Here’s a clue: go rub two sticks together. Bonus points if those sticks have a few fall leaves attached to them.

Allow me to be less cryptic: it’s likely that orange represents the ceremonial Samhain fires lit by druids on the evening of October 31st. As I mentioned earlier, the coals from those community fires would be transported via jack-o’-lantern and used to reignite the hearths in people’s homes that had been left to burn out. Of course, there’s also the prevalence of the color orange in autumn leaves, which may have reinforced the idea of orange being a Samhain color. As Stevens explains: 

Orange is representative of the fire that burns during the festival of Samhain and during the winter months. It also corresponds to the leaves that have changed color and of the harvest itself.

source: “What Are the Halloween Colors and What Do They Mean?” Reader’s Digest

4. Dressing Up in Costumes

Why do we wear costumes on Halloween?

photo of kid in skeleton costume
Photo by Clay LeConey on Unsplash

Some of you may find this hard to believe, but there was a time, many moons ago, when children dressed up on Halloween not as Marvel superheroes or Disney princesses, but as ghosts and goblins and all manner of ghoulish, ghastly, terrifying demons.

Shocking, I know. But this is pretty much how the Samhain tradition of wearing costumes originated: the goal wasn’t to appear cute or strong or extravagant, it was to disguise oneself from — or even blend in with — the ghosts and goblins that might potentially be crossing over from the Otherworld. That meant adopting a frightening appearance.

Starting in the 16th century, if not earlier, groups known as “mummers” or “guisers” would pay homage to this Celtic custom by galavanting around in costumes on Halloween. Here’s how author and folklorist Florence Marian McNeill explained guising — and its origin — in her book, The Silver Bough Volume Three: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals – Hallowe’en to Yule (note: This same passage also appears in her later work, Hallowe’en: Its Origin, Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition):

[T]here is nothing even nominally Christian about the Hallowe’en guisers. It is thought that they may have originated in a folk-memory of the actual initiators at the Druidic feast, who, as masked men, represented spirits, but until fairly recent times their object was to avoid being recognised by the spirits of their dead, who might possibly do them a mischief. To-day, the grotesque masks and fantastic garments of the guisers represent the uncanny creatures whom their forefathers believed to be at large on this occult night —ghoulies, ghaisties and bogies; fairies, banshees and gruagachs; witches, warlocks and wurricoes; brownies, urisks and shelly-coats; kelpies and water-bulls; spunkies, gnomes, trolls and sprites: the whole unhallowed clanjamfrey of the netherworld.

Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate McNeill’s use of the word “clanjamfrey,” which is officially my new favorite word of all time.

It might also be interesting to learn that in addition to the wearing of “grotesque masks and fantastic garments” on Halloween, face-painting appears to have its origin in Samhain as well — and it’s directly connected to those ceremonial bonfires we’ve heard so much about in previous sections. To quote McNeill:

Instead of masks, some of the guisers have blackened faces. This is a relic of the blackening with the ashes of the Druidical bonfire for protection and good fortune.

source: The Silver Bough Volume Three: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals – Hallowe’en to Yule

5. Giving Out Candy

Why do we give out candy on Halloween?

photo of a pile of halloween candy
Photo by Branden Skeli on Unsplash

As we learned earlier from journalist Alison Richards, ancient Celts “tied apples to evergreen branches” on Samhain to encourage the return of their sun deity. Richards goes on to tell us that in that same vein, “[g]ifts of fruit and nuts, and animal sacrifices, were offered to the gods.”

Anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz bolsters this claim in his book, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, noting:

Samain… was the great Celtic feast of the dead when offerings or sacrifice of various kinds were made to ancestral spirits, and to the Tuatha De Danann and the spirit-hosts under their control.

For those unfamiliar with the Tuatha De Danann (also spelled “De Danaan”), they are the old gods of Irish mythology, known for “their supremacy over ghosts and demons on Samain and their power to steal mortals away at such a time.” So….yeah. It was important to make offerings to these guys (and gals), lest they unleash a fire-breathing, enchanted timpán-playing monster from the Otherworld on your ass, which is exactly what happens in the story of Aillén. To quote Evans-Wentz:

Aillén visits Tara, the old psychic centre both for Ireland’s high-kings and its Druids. He comes as it were against the conquerors of his race, who in their neglectfulness no longer render due worship and sacrifice on the Feast of Samain to the Tuatha De Danann, the gods of the dead, at that time supreme; and then it is that he works his magic against the royal palaces of the kings and Druids on the ancient Hill.

source: The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries

After being conquered by the invading Milesians and driven underground (or so the story goes), the Tuatha de Danann grew smaller in popular imaginations — both literally and figuratively. The powerful gods of old became the aes sídhe — “the people of the hills” — otherwise known as fairies. But their connection to Samhain, and their perceived potential for mischief-making, remained strong. Thus, later generations of Celtic peoples began leaving sweet treats out on their doorsteps on the evening of October 31st to appease the fairies and whatever demons and restless spirits might be in their company.

Even after Samhain was (nominally) Christianized, people continued this tradition, albeit with a more personal twist. It became less about appeasing sinister fairies and spirits and more about accommodating the homesick souls of loved ones who’d passed on. As the aforementioned author and folklorist Florence Marian McNeill explains:

All over Europe, the souls of the departed were believed to revisit their old homes on the eve of Allhallows and warm themselves at the fire or regale themselves with the food and drink set out for them by their kinsfolk.

source: The Silver Bough Volume Three: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals – Hallowe’en to Yule

Eventually, people began leaving out a specific type of sweet treat for the souls that visited on All Hallows Eve: soul cakes. Made with raisins, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, the soul cake was the forerunner to Halloween candy.

6. Trick-or-Treating

Why do we go trick-or-treating on Halloween?

photo of parent taking toddler, dressed as snow white, trick-or-treating
Photo by Haley Phelps on Unsplash

So, to recap the previous two sections: we’ve got people going about in costume on All Hallows Eve to disguise themselves from spirits, and we’ve got people leaving sweet treats out on their front stoops on that same night to appease those same spirits. Clearly, the conditions were perfect for a new All Hallows Eve tradition to develop:

Burning witches.

No, wait… trick-or-treating. I meant trick-or-treating.

This tradition likely got its start when villagers and townsfolk dressed as ghosts and fairies and demons and the like began accepting (re: stealing) Samhain offerings on behalf of those otherworldly beings they were impersonating. Upon arriving at homes that didn’t have any treats on offer, the disguised Samhain revelers perpetrated acts of mischief in recompense. As a result, people eventually began giving out sweet treats on the evening of October 31st to appease not the spirits, but their costumed impersonators. This is the foundation upon which modern trick-or-treating is built. To quote husband and wife authors Vince and Sandra Peddle, who write under the pen name S. V. Peddle:

Today’s popular Halloween custom of ‘trick or treat’, although believed to be an American import, can be traced to these ancient European customs of appeasing the dead. The children who call on households on Halloween night with the choice between good and bad luck (trick or treat, give me a sweet or I’ll do something nasty to you), personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune.

source: Pagan Channel Islands: Europe’s Hidden Heritage

Of course, there would be several steps in the development of trick-or-treating: it didn’t jump directly from rabble-rousers impersonating spirits to children roaming neighborhoods collecting candy. In one of its medieval iterations, known as “souling,” poor people would go to wealthy homes on All Hallows Eve and say prayers for the souls of deceased loved ones and/or give performances in exchange for money and food. By the 19th century, it was common for households to give out nuts and fruits (apples in particular) to costumed children on Halloween. And by the 1920s, candy had entered the mix; the age of modern trick-or-treating — and some might say the age of modern Halloween — had arrived.

Want to learn the rest of the Samhain story? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

Further Reading

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal

This Is Halloween by James A. Moore

The Better Days Books Vintage Halloween Reader by multiple authors

A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts by J. W. Ocker

Llewellyn’s Little Book of Halloween by Mickie Mueller

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: