The origins of Halloween come from the Celtic “Festival of the Dead” called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). This is the biggest and most significant holiday on the Celtic calendar and marks the New Year and the beginning of winter.
Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living; because the souls of those who died during the year traveled into the otherworld during Samhain.
In much of the Gaelic world, bonfires were lit and people would often walk with their livestock between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual… bones of slaughter livestock were cast into its flames. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place at the table was set for them.
People also took steps to protect themselves from harmful spirits, which is thought to have led to the custom of guising. It is said that the sidhe, fairy mounds and portals to the fairy world, were always open at Samhain. Fairies were often thought to steal humans on this holiday and people took steps to ward-off these harmful spirits and fairies. Fairy mounds were avoided, people stayed close to home and if forced to walk in darkness, they turned their clothing inside-out and carried iron or salt to keep the fairies at bay. Offerings of food were left at the door for the fairies to ensure favor in the coming year.
Turnip lanterns, sometimes with faces carved into them, were common. Their purpose is said to be threefold: they were used to light one’s way while outside on Samhain night; to represent the spirits and otherworldly beings; and to protect one’s home from them.
Divination was also performed at Samhain. The most common uses were to find out the identity of one’s future spouse, the location of one’s future home and how many children one might have. Season foods, like apples and nuts, were eaten during these rituals. Apple peels were used to divine the first letter of the future spouse’s name, nuts were roasted to predict if a couple would stay together and egg whites were used to tell how many children someone might have. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.
Christians, in an attempt to convert “natives”, effectively and majorly transformed the holiday. In 601 AD, Pope Gregory the First issued the famous edict to his missionaries; if group of people worshiped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.
While the method of converting holidays to facilitate conversion was effective, Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted. To offset this, the church made these creatures not only dangerous, but malicious and followers of the old religion were branded as witches.
Through time, the old beliefs never died out completely. All Hallows Eve is still a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings are now all thought to be evil.
It is still common for children and adults alike to dress like these dreadful creatures; performing antics in exchange for food and drink. To this day, witches, ghosts and skeletons remain among favorite holiday disguises.