Everyday Life

Unmasking the Origins of Halloween

Halloween, a captivating and mysterious holiday, has fascinated people for generations. Often associated with costumes, sweets, and spooky decorations, its early history remains shrouded in the mists of time.

So what are the origins of Halloween in its early period?

Here we look at the ancient Celtic roots of Samhain, the Roman influence on this festival, and the emergence of early Halloween traditions.

The Celtic Roots of Samhain

Halloween’s history begins with the Celts, an ancient group of people who lived in what is now modern-day Ireland, the United Kingdom, and parts of France.

The early period of Halloween can be traced back to their vibrant and mystical festival called Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.

Pumpkin’s for sale today. The tradition lives on.

Samhain was a significant event in the Celtic calendar, celebrated around the 31st of October, although their calendar did not align exactly with ours. The Celts believed that during Samhain, the boundary between the living and the dead grew thin.

This belief was deeply rooted in their spiritual and agricultural practices. The thinning of the veil between the worlds allowed spirits, both benevolent and malevolent, to move freely between realms. This belief was the essence of Samhain.

It is important to note that the Celts did not have a single, unified culture, but rather various tribes and communities. Samhain practices varied among these groups. However, certain common elements characterized most Samhain celebrations.

The Role of Bonfires and Costumes

One of the key elements of Samhain was the lighting of bonfires. These fires served multiple purposes during the early Halloween period. They were a means of purification, helping to cleanse the land and the people.

The fires also served as a way to ward off malevolent spirits who might cross over during Samhain. Additionally, the flames were believed to guide the souls of the deceased to the otherworld. People also lit bonfires to keep warm and illuminate the darkness of the approaching winter months.

The use of fire, both in the form of bonfires and torches, played a pivotal role during Samhain, becoming an early precursor to the modern tradition of jack-o’-lanterns.

Costumes were another significant part of early Halloween celebrations during the Samhain festival. People donned costumes made from animal heads and skins to mimic and appease the spirits.

Fionn fights Aillen during the festival of Samhain

These costumes were not mere disguises but a means of merging with the otherworldly entities believed to roam the earth. The tradition of wearing costumes during Samhain exemplifies the early connection between Halloween and the spirit world.

Sacrifices and Feasts

During Samhain, the Celts engaged in ritual sacrifices and feasts, further illustrating the spiritual significance of the festival. Animals, particularly cattle, were ritually slaughtered as offerings to the gods and spirits.

The blood of these animals was collected and used for various purposes, including marking doorways for protection. In addition to animal sacrifices, the Celts likely offered crops, food, and drink to honour their ancestors and otherworldly beings.

These feasts were a way to share and celebrate the abundance of the harvest season, ensuring the community’s survival through the approaching winter.

The act of offering sacrifices and sharing food showed the importance of Samhain as a time for connecting with the spirit world and ensuring the well-being of the living.

Celtic Beliefs and Superstitions

The Celts held various beliefs and superstitions related to Samhain. They believed that the souls of the deceased returned during Samhain, often visiting their former homes.

To accommodate these visiting spirits, the Celts would set places at their tables and offer food and drink. This act of hospitality towards the dead was a manifestation of respect for their ancestors and a way to ensure their blessings.

Superstitions regarding divination were also prevalent during Samhain. People practiced various forms of divination, such as reading the patterns of apples bobbing in water or examining the ashes of the bonfires for signs and omens. These practices were seen as a way to gain insight into the future and communicate with the otherworld.

The Roman Influence

The early period of Halloween took a significant turn with the Roman conquest of Celtic lands. The Romans brought their own festivals and traditions, which eventually merged with the Celtic practices of Samhain.

The ancient ritual of bonfires during Halloween is seen practised here.

The Roman influence on Samhain can be traced to two key festivals: Feralia and Pomona.


The roots of Halloween stretch deep into history, drawing upon diverse traditions and cultures. One such influence on the holiday is the Roman Feralia, an ancient festival that has left a significant imprint on the modern celebration of Halloween.

Feralia was a day of deep reverence and reflection. Romans believed that the spirits of the deceased roamed the Earth during Feralia, and it was essential to appease and honour these spirits to prevent their return as malevolent entities.

The rituals of Feralia included offerings of flowers, food, and milk on the graves of the deceased. These offerings were a sign of respect and a gesture of goodwill to the spirits of the departed.

The connection between Feralia and Halloween lies in their shared reverence for the dead and the belief in a thinning veil between the living and the spirit world. The rituals and traditions of Feralia have left an indelible mark on the way we observe Halloween, serving as a testament to the enduring legacy of ancient cultures on our modern celebrations.


In ancient Rome, Pomona was the goddess of fruit and gardens. She personified the abundance of the harvest, particularly the bounty of orchards. Her name is derived from the Latin word “pomum,” meaning fruit.

Pomona was often depicted in art holding a cornucopia filled with ripe fruits, and she became a symbol of prosperity and fertility. The Roman festival dedicated to Pomona celebrated the culmination of the harvest season and paid homage to the importance of fruit in Roman culture.

The Roman Goddess Pomona seen here with….apples! Pomona, by Nicolas Fouché, c. 1700.

The Roman festival of Pomona was held on November 1, coinciding with the modern date of Halloween. This festival marked the transition from the agricultural activities of summer to the preparations for winter.

It was a time to give thanks for the abundance of the harvest, particularly the fruits of the orchards. While the festival of Pomona was not directly tied to the spiritual beliefs regarding the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead, its celebration of the harvest had a significant impact on the development of Halloween.

Apples, the Fruit of Choice

Apples held a special place of honour during the festival of Pomona. The fruit associated with Pomona and symbolized the goddess’s sphere of influence over fruit and gardens.

Roman revellers celebrated the harvest by indulging in apples, making apple garlands, and playing games with the fruit. The apple’s significance during the festival of Pomona has left a lasting mark on the modern Halloween celebration.

Bobbing for Apples

One of the most enduring traditions associated with Halloween is the game of bobbing for apples. This playful and sometimes challenging game involves attempting to catch apples floating in a tub or basin of water using only the mouth.

While the game itself can be great fun, its origins are rooted in the Roman festival of Pomona. The act of bobbing for apples harks back to the reverence of this fruit during the celebration of Pomona.

Christian Influence: All Hallows’ Eve

The Christian influence on early Halloween is evident in the naming of the holiday. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, a day to honour all the saints and martyrs.

American students bob for apples in the 1930s. The practice goes back centuries however.

The night before All Saints’ Day, October 31, became known as All Hallows’ Eve, eventually shortened to Halloween. This transition marked the integration of Christian practices with existing traditions, including Samhain.

The designation of November 1 as All Saints’ Day emphasizes the importance of honouring the deceased in Christian beliefs.


One of the early traditions associated with All Hallows’ Eve was the custom of “souling.” On this evening, poor Christians, often children and beggars, would go door-to-door, offering prayers and singing for the souls of the departed.

In return, they received “soul cakes,” small, round pastries, and coins. This practice has been linked to the modern tradition of “trick-or-treating,” where children go door-to-door in costumes to collect candies.

Trick or Treat?

The early history of Halloween, with its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, is a tale of transition, fusion, and evolution.

The Celts celebrated Samhain with bonfires, costumes, sacrifices, and feasts, believing it was a time when the living and the dead could commune.

Halloween is also a time for celebration. Snap-Apple Night, painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833

The Roman influence introduced festivals like Feralia and Pomona, aligning with the themes of Samhain and enriching the holiday’s tapestry.

Christianity’s influence through All Hallows’ Eve further merged these traditions, reflecting a blending of cultural practices.

This early period of Halloween provides a fascinating glimpse into the intricate history of a holiday that continues to captivate and mystify people around the world.