When I came to the United States first I was surprised, and delighted, to discover that Halloween was such a popular holiday. You see Halloween is originally an Irish pagan feast. It travelled to the United States with our emigrants, in the 19th century, and has been adopted into American culture.
The original Irish Celtic festival was called “Samhain.” It occurred at the end of autumn when crops had been harvested and animals were slaughtered to provide food for the winter. It was, essentially, the end of the farming year. In Celtic culture the 1st November was considered “New Year’s Day”. So Halloween was their “New Year’s Eve”.
To celebrate “Samhain” the ancient Celts would light bonfires. These were originally called “bone fires” and were used to incinerate the bones of the recently slaughtered farm animals. They would also play games such as bobbing for apples, which is still very popular. In addition they liked to carve vegetables. The same tradition is still alive today with the carved pumpkin. As there were no pumpkins in Ireland they used to carve turnips.
The ancient Celts believed that, at the end of the year, the souls of people who had died that year would leave the earth and go to heaven. It was part of their belief that these ghosts roamed freely that night before leaving. In order to ward off any hauntings and provide sustenance for their journey, people would leave food and drink at their door for the departed spirits. You will notice the origins of “trick-or-treat”.
We Irish also bake a special cake which is only eaten at Halloween. It’s called “Barmbrack” and it is used for fortune telling! Certain small items are concealed in the cake, such as a ring, a rag, a coin or a small stick. Google “barmbrack” and find out what these signify!
In 601 AD Pope Gregory The First, issued his famous edict. He told his missionaries that, rather than try to obliterate native customs and beliefs, they should convert them into Christian feast days. So, the 1st of November then became the Feast of All Saints. It became a sacred or “hallowed” day. But the Celts still gave significance to the day before, which was “the eve of All Hallows” and became known as Hallows E’en and then Halloween.
So now you have the story of Halloween. And, as the actor Michael Cain would say, “Not many people know that!”