Why Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

photo of kid in skeleton costume

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

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 monsters.

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 perhaps even blend in with—the supernatural beings 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; witcheswarlocks and wurricoes; brownies, urisks and shelly-coats; kelpies and water-bulls; spunkies, gnomes, trolls and sprites: the whole unhallowed clanjamfrey of the netherworld.

Let us 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 Samhain bonfires I’ve written about in previous posts (and in Samhain in Your Pocket). You know, those communal fires lit by druids from which all members of a community would re-light their homes’ hearth fires, transporting embers via jack-o’-lantern, as one did in ancient Ireland and Scotland.

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

Editor’s note: this article is an excerpt from “The Celtic History Behind Our Favorite Halloween Traditions: 6 Samhain Rituals That Refuse to Die.

Want to learn the full story of Samhain? 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…

Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…

Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)

In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

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.

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

  1. And a very interesting idea of where the black faces came from for mummers and even Border-Morris dancers. I had often felt it was never about race and was actually a very quick mask to make using soot, charcoal and ash….. but the connection with the druid fires never came to mind!


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: