When you begin looking at the sources for Halloween, you’re inevitably drawn to Samhain. But the waters of history are truly murky here.
I set out to track down whether Halloween is indeed descended from Samhain, what connection with the two actually reflects ancient practices, and what when in the year did it occur?
The reason this is important, is when I was a kid, walking the dark streets on Halloween night, I believed in all those things that were said to be out there, as surely as I believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. There was something magical, and supernatural about that night. You could feel it, and when you’re a kid, you’re not hampered by rational thought. You’re more like the people of old, superstitious and alert for the dangers of the night. I still think we were the ones who had it right.
The short of it …
The thread which has run continually through both Samhain and Halloween is a connection to the dead and the supernatural. That connection was thought to be made possible by the thinning of the veil between worlds, which was at its thinnest at Samhain.
Today, Samhain is celebrated on the evening of October 31. In the past it was a three day celebration. In fact, the whole month of November was named for it, with other festivals during the month. Traces of Samhain can be found as early as 1 b.c.
Here’s the problem. Since the Julian Calendar, which is how they measured time back then, was off its celestial alignment, dates like the solstices and equinoxes were out of whack. By as much ten days. But for the ancients, that wasn’t a problem. Because there wasn’t a calendar tacked to the wall of their cottage on the moors.
These were agricultural communities, and they didn’t need calendars, because their lives were tied to the circle of nature. Samhain was likely celebrated when the last harvest came in, no matter the date.
Still, there were signs in nature that could have been indicators it’s logical to assume that there was a yearly sign which signified the date. My favorite theory states that the holiday commences when the Pleiades were directly overhead at midnight, which used to be on or around October 31, but is now in late November. It has the advantage of being able to watch it in the weeks leading up to it.
Many point to Samhain being the cross quarter date, the day between the fall solstice and winter equinox. Since the calendar isn’t precise, that date now falls early in November, rather than October 31.
In short, the day in the year’s cycle when Samhain was celebrated now no longer lines up with October 31, and hasn’t for centuries. That date was chosen by the Catholic Church, to honor the dead which they do on November 1 and 2, and to Christianize the Samhain celebrations. It worked so well, even modern day pagans celebrate on the day picked by the church rather than the celestial signs.
But if this Halloween you’re trying to contact Uncle Edgar on the other side, and are counting on the thinning of the veil to make it possible, you might hold off a bit.
The long of it: How Samhain was swallowed up by Halloween
Samhain was an ancient pagan celebration and feast which lasted for days, if not the entire month. Most of what happened then we do not know. We do know that during this time the ancient peoples engaged in a variety of activities and beliefs, many of which went into the shaping of Halloween. One of the key components was the supernatural element, and the connection with the dead.
But most of the writings we have about Samhain start trickling in about the 15th or 16th century. There aren’t many pagan customs noted in them. Ronald Hutton, author of A History of the Ritual Year in Britain believes it could be because by this time, the Christian influence on the holiday had been so complete that the pagan influences had disappeared.
His theory is that the telling of supernatural tales would have been no different than at any other festival. And indeed, that would equally apply to the divination games the young people were playing at these festivals, which carried over into the twentieth century.
The death knell for Samhain came in the eleventh century when the church declared the three days traditionally associated with it as Allhallowtide, a religious observance honoring the dead. It’s logical to assume that they chose to Christianize Samhain because there was an existing connection to the dead. But either way, Samhain by that point was a shadow of itself, and from this point on, the church, not the pagans drove the supernatural elements of Halloween.
The evolution of holy day to holiday
While Samhain might have had supernatural elements, Halloween was nothing but the supernatural and the dead, plus candy of course.
By the time that Halloween took over as the holiday celebrated on the evening of October 31, the jubilant mood of this time of year was darker. People no longer welcomed the dead into their homes, like in earlier observances. They feared them now, and on this night protected themselves from the supernatural.
Except those who used this date to explore the supernatural, and as any student of horror films can tell you, the witches, warlocks and magicians were the ones you had to fear most.
Now the most popular Halloween films are comedies.
How did we lose the fear of this holy night, when we commune with the dead, demons cross over the veil, when witches of a dark ilk spread their evil like a cloak of darkness upon the land, when the very pumpkins grin back at us from their viny patch? How did we lose it all in a rush of good cheer?
Pagans in ancient times tended to have beliefs which today seem quite savage. Neopaganism strips away the savagery, and when you strip the savage Earth heart from the breast of paganism, are you left with the same thing you started with? Or did you lose something of great value along the way?
I’m not advocating the return of human sacrifice. But when one of the essential elements of a neolithic feast was the pig, how can you claim authenticity and continuity with a vegan menu? Where’s the sacrifice in that?
Where did Halloween come from?
Halloween is a part of Hallowtide, a three day observance of the Catholic church – All Hallow’s (or Saint’s) Eve, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. It was three days set apart for remembering the dead.
Halloween developed separately from Samhain in cultures which didn’t celebrate the older holiday, but it’s hard to hide the influence that the Irish and other Celtic people had on the celebration.
There are conflicting arguments on this, though most would agree that the Gaelic festival of Samhain, celebrated in Ireland since Neolithic times is the original source. The Welsh had their own version of Sahmain, called Calan Gaeaf, in Cornwall it’s called Kalan Gwav, and across channel in Brittany it’s known as Kalan Goañv.
Neolithic monuments in Ireland aligned to the sunrise midway between the summer and winter solstices, shows that this time of year was revered by the ancients. As many of the monuments were burials, and their celebrations sometimes had the bones of their ancestors joining them, it’s safe to assume there was a connection between this holiday and the dead.
Holidays often included them, much as some families set a plate today for a departed family member.
Until the middle ages, we only have the oral tradition to understand how Samhain was celebrated. In short, we know very little. By the time the customs were written down, the holiday had been Christianized into Halloween.
Each culture, indeed each generation seemed to have made their mark on the tradition, introducing new strains, modifying existing ones.
From the Irish came the idea of Samhain as a party, though harvest celebrations are ubiquitous throughout the ancient, as well as the modern world. The Irish gave us the Samhain bonfire, which are now tied to high school homecoming football games each autumn, more so than Halloween. Samhain marked the beginning of the Celtic new year, the darkest part of the year, and all fires and hearths were extinguished, then relit from the Samhain bonfire.
The bonfires were a remnant perhaps of the old tradition, which still hung on in places, of carrying torches around the fields to represent the sun which was now dying in the sky. Sometimes two fires were built and people walked between them, often driving their cattle as a cleansing ritual. The remnants and ashes from these fires were believed to have protective qualities, important as for the Irish, during Samhain evil could well be afoot.
Build a fire and you get shenanigans. Leaping over the fire was customary, as was to lay as close to the fire as possible, enveloped in smoke, and have others jump over you. The bones of cattle were often tossed into the fire. Some say that the fire was made of bones, the source of the name bonfire.
Today many people turn their back on Halloween because of its pagan roots. But our schools sanction and pay for a pagan ritual.
What is Halloween? The thinning of the veil
When you reach the fourteenth century, belief in ghosts and witches were tainted by Christianity. Instead of seeing them as natural phenomenon, they were seen as demonic, Satanic or anti Christian. What was once looked on as a mystery was now seen as something to fear.
Also, by the middle ages, it was a relatively common belief that all the souls of those who had died during the year had to wait until this night to slip into the next world.
For during Samhain, the portals between this world and the otherworld were open, and the Aos Si could pass into our world. The Aos Si were spirits and fairies, thought to be remnants of the old Irish gods, which lived on the other side of the veil. You shouldn’t assume the word fairy here refers to a Tinkerbell type creature. Fairies were quite often malevolent, violent and dastardly creatures. They were certainly to be feared, and avoided at all costs. Many of the customs of Samhain were to protect the people from their harmful influence.
However, since their protection was essential for humans and livestock alike surviving the winter, food and drink were set out for them.
In addition, it was believed the dead came home for the night, and quite often a plate would be set for their ghosts. Candles would be lit in every room of the house so the dead could find their way home.
After the meal it was time to celebrate. Over time, that included bobbing for apples and foretelling the future, particularly how it related to death and marriage. Originally, the apples used for bobbing had initials carved on them, and the one you pulled out bore the initials of the person you were going to marry.
In other places, your initials were carved onto a stone which was tossed into the bonfire. If your stone couldn’t be found, you’d not live out the next year.
Over the centuries, people’s beliefs towards the dead changed. In the Neolithic we see ancestor worship, where their bones were brought out for celebrations. Over time that waned, though respect was still warranted. It was perhaps more with reverence than worship that people lit candles to let their ancestors into their homes.
Christianity brought demons into the mix, who could impersonate the ghosts of your loved ones. So perhaps the ancestor you welcomed into your home was actually a denizen of the ninth level of Hell?
As time wore on, the fear of the dead grew stronger, and rather than welcoming them, the bonfires were built to keep them away, though the festival element remained strong, and from those festivals came many of the traditions which Halloween is known for today.
What is Halloween? Trick or treating
Guising, as well as mumming had been known since at least the 1500s, and was the practice of dressing in costumes and knocking on doors, providing a bit of entertainment in exchange for food. This was the precursor in all likelihood to trick or treating. In some areas, this incorporated dressing as the dead, or in a way which represented the dead.
In Scotland and Ireland, the habit of adding tricks came into play during the seventeenth century. These people were mimicking the evil or dangerous sprits and the mischief they heaped upon the living. As they went door to door, they carried lanterns made from turnips which had carved faces to show a candle inside, what became today’s jack-o-lanterns.
It was Britain which gave Halloween its name. And ironically, Britain was one of the first countries to bail on celebrating Halloween. This occurred in 1647 when Parliament banned all celebrations which bore the stamp of Catholicism.
The main difference between Samhain and Halloween?
In short, Halloween is a calendar holiday, celebrated the same day each year. Samhain’s date could vary, independent of the calendar, because at the time of its inception, there were no calendars as we know them.
If you went to church, you knew the date every Sunday. If you went to town, it was often posted on the board. If you were a businessman, you likely knew the date. If you were a farmer, you knew the signs better than the date.
And it was the rural communities that Samhain was born.
How long did Samhain last?
Was it the belief that the denizens of the night came out as sunset on October 31 and stayed on this side for a full day? Or just till sunrise? Or for several days or more?
In Ireland, these festivals went on for a week – three days before and three days after. Perhaps this was a way to be sure you got the magic moment during the celebration. Or perhaps, Samhain was never meant to be thought of as a single day. The word Samhain actually referred to the whole month of November, so the important questions is how long did the thinning of the veil last?
Would it have lasted all month, the week of the Samhain celebration, or Samhain itself? That touches on the question of what is the actual date of Samhain?
Finding the date the portal opens
One of the major differences between Halloween and Samhain is the way the date is chosen. Halloween is based on a fixed date on the calendar. Samhain, if you’re thinking of it in the traditional sense, is based on nature’s cycle, and when we try to reconcile the two ways of measuring time, it gets a bit messy.
Samhain is halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstices, making it a seasonal celebration, one of the four based on the old Gaelic calendar. But without some celestial marker, it’s hard to accept that there was a universal date and time for Samhain in the Celtic world. But the exact day would obviously be important, as the dead likely wouldn’t have an option for slipping into the next world on a Saturday because it was more convenient than on the years when the 31st fell on a Wednesday.
Keep in mind that for the most part, these were illiterate, rural folk. Calendars weren’t on the wall to let people know it was October 31st. So how did they know when the ancestors would be showing up for dinner?
For dates, the ancients looked to the stars and the seasons. A cross quarter date is the day which falls halfway between an equinox and a solstice, and Halloween is roughly one of those. Computing these days would be relatively easy based on observations of the sun and stars, and it’s perfectly logical to believe that this cross quarter date, October 31, would be the Samhain that the ancients celebrated.
So it’s also logical to assume that this would be the evening when the veil between this world and the next would be lifted.
Except the year doesn’t last exactly 365 days, and over time the calendar began to drift away from the actual seasons. So the calendar was adjusted, and leap year thrown in to keep things on an even keel. The result being that the day that the ancients celebrated as Samhain based on this theory, the cross quarter holiday, now falls on or about November 7.
If paganism had descended with its neolithic beliefs somehow intact, they would have known this. Because they would have seen it in the celestial alignments. But that knowledge was long lost by the time the church started tinkering with the calendar. The date wasn’t adjusted because by then, people had forgotten an accurate date was important.
Dating Samhain by the Pleiades
The Pleiades is a constellation which is visible from the North Pole to the tip of Africa. Also known as the Seven Sisters for the seven stars most prominently visible, it’s nearly always there if you look for it.
The ancients, from Greece to South America venerated and sometimes feared the Pleiades. Some said that it was at this time that the ancient cataclysms occurred, as well as future ones, so it could be a time of fear and dread. Many cultures, including European cultures connected the constellation with the dead, and when they were overhead, the veil between the worlds was growing thinner.
On the night when they were directly overhead at midnight the veil was at its thinnest, and the dead could leave their graves and once more walk the earth. Sound familiar?
The Pleiades were directly overhead coincidently enough, about the same time as the cross quarter celebrations which we now equate with Halloween. In fact, for a couple hundred years before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, which we use now, October 31 found them at their highest point. Today it’s on or about the night of November 20/21.
How Halloween supplanted the date of Samhain
Halloween is of course, October 31, a set date. It got its start because of the proximity to a holy day, or holy days which began on November 1. Hence the name Halloween, short for All Hallows evening. November 1 is the feast of All Hallows or All Martyrs, the beginning of Allhallowtide, a time set aside for remembering the dead in Western Christianity. November 2 is All Souls Day, a day for remembering all the dead. In early Christianity it was commonplace for a vigil to be held the evening before a holy day, and so Halloween, a holy evening was born.
The original date for All Hallows was May 13. It was set with the dedication of the Parthenon in Rome, to supplant a Roman celebration of the dead. Around a hundred years later it was moved to November 1, the same date associated with Samhain.
When the church grafted the holy day on top of these celebrations, it tied it together in a theological way to make Christian sense of pagan beliefs. Rather than force them to give up their practices, they instead give their beliefs a Christian origin story. They bet, rightly, that over time the masses would come to remember the Christian origin over the pagan. So in a sense, from Halloween’s birth, it had the church’s seal of approval. Everything from dressing up like a witch to jack o’lanterns had the pope’s blessing.
When is the actual date of Halloween?
So what’s the bottom line here? Just when is Halloween/Samhain? That depends on what you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for tricks or treats, celebrations, parties and lots of horror films on cable tv, then October 31 is perfect. If you want to move your party to the Saturday before that’s cool too. Oddly enough, people almost never have Halloween celebrations after October 31, though it makes more sense than to hold them in October.
If you’re looking for the time when the fabric holding the dead from the earth ripples open, then you have two choices. If your beliefs revolve around a seasonal viewpoint, then November 7 is the day to break out the crystal ball.
If you take your cues from the stars, then no other time but the evening of November 20 will do.
That’s when the lady and I tied the knot. Right about the stroke of midnight.
Or you can do as the ancient pagans did, which likely was observed both the cross quarter and apex of the Seven Sisters on their celestial ride.
I could buy into the Pleiades theory. We’re talking about rural celebrations here, often held by a semi nomadic people. Not everyone had their own Stonehenge to check for the precise date of the cross quarter. But they could look up to the stars and thanks to the Pleiades, come pretty darned close.
Or is the magic in the wind?
It was a couple years ago, November 1. It’s always a bit of a letdown after Halloween. And like so many other first days of November, the temperature dropped and the wind came in. Blew for three days, took a corner off the barn.
Then last year, a day or two after Halloween, here came the wind, blowing the leaves from the trees. And it hit me. It does this every fall, usually just into November. It doesn’t truly get spooky without it.
And as harvest and the time just after is a busy time, trying to beat the cold, that first burst of wind could have been the sign that it was time to take a break.
I like that thought, though I have no evidence to support it. But a rural community trying to pull an exact date from the position of a constellation seems more far fetched, than something that everyone can see and feel.
America embraces Halloween
It is said that Halloween came to America in the mid nineteenth century along with the Irish fleeing the potato famine. But as with all things Halloween, that’s a generalization.
Medieval Europe, where most Halloween traditions originated was populated with an illiterate people. There was no single book spreading holiday traditions, and as Halloween appears to have originated in harvest celebrations, communities often developed their own celebrations. Some stuck and spread, others died away.
So there is no codified version of Halloween which all others grew from. Instead Halloween, like most other celebrations and holidays developed alongside but separately according to where you lived, and when you lived there.
The tie that binds nearly all Halloween or Samhain celebrations? The connection with the supernatural and the dead, for that’s what separates them from otherwise ordinary harvest celebrations.
What is Halloween? That depends on who is asking
You strip away the candy and costumes, you get back to the roots and it’s the dead, crossing back over into this world, even if just for a night. I might be of the last generation to see Halloween for what it was. I was at the tail end of a superstitious generation, which was at the tail end of human history in that regard. When people were more likely to believe in something unknowable. Whether it was ghosts or gods or both.
What caused this seismic shift in how the world saw the otherworld? I blame it on the movies.
What is Halloween? A time for horror films
I was a teenager when the first Halloween film came out. Michael Myers wasn’t a ghost. He was deranged. It was really a crime/drama up till the end, when a supernatural element was introduced. It seemed nothing more than shock value at that point. Because by the end of that film, movie goers were no longer frightened by the dead in films. They were frightened of dying a sudden and violent death.
That was the seismic change in horror films. It was that fear of pain, of dying that usurped the role of ghouls in our collective fear. Vampires eventually became objects of romantic longing. The wolfman became native American folklore.
As we became a more rational people, we lost the fear of the supernatural.
What is Halloween? Razor blades in the pumpkin
When I was six or seven years old something occurred to break Halloween. There had been rumors before about poison treats, but those were urban legends. Then the horror stories changed to razor blades and needles inserted into apples and other treats, and the stories grew like wildfire.
In reality it almost never happened and the injuries which did occur were very minor. It would be almost twenty years before it actually became a big problem. That killed trick or treating. The fear went from fear of the dead, to fear of the people whose doors you knocked on. It was only a matter of time before horror films caught up to the change.
The idea that you were given treats showed that the real fear was supposed to be the people living in the house, afraid of what stood at the door. From that point on that idea was turned on its head. As a result, centuries old traditions were broken. Fears which live in the imagination were supplanted by a more material fear of pain and death.
Because we stopped knowing our neighbors, and stopped feeling safe letting them give our children candy.
Halloween had always relied on the imagination for its chills. From this point on, fear would take the same turn as horror films did later. We have to believe in something to fear it. As a society, we stopped fearing anything worse than death. We lost our imaginations and our ability to fear.
What is Halloween today?
Without that core belief, that Halloween was the time when the dead walked the earth, Halloween has no meaning other than the commercial. The church has seemed to give up on making their holiday a living tradition. In the rest of society, costumes aren’t usually ghost, ghouls, goblins and witches. They’re popular characters from movies and TV shows. Visual puns where once sincerity gave the holiday its meaning.
We compartmentalize. The autumn harvest celebration tradition which went hand in hand with Samhain and Halloween has been delegated to its own celebration, and stripped of the macabre, robbing the holiday of much of its richness.
Since the advent of motion pictures we’ve become a more visual society. Why read and imagine when we can watch and see? Why indeed? Because when we use our imagination we feel things stronger.
When Frankenstein was written, the horror was what happened with Victor Frankenstein, who tried to take on the role of God and paid dearly for that. By 1931 and the film version of the story, the horror was the monster, the belief in God no longer so strong or prevalent. In the even more modern retellings, the horror is the way the monster is treated by society. Along the way the whole premise of the story, and the source of the horror has been metamorphosed.
What is Halloween? The decline of the role of religion in horror
Much of gothic horror dealt with the loss of one’s soul. The fastest growing segment of religion today are those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. People are put off by the strict guidelines sat down by organized religion. We don’t like being told we’ll suffer damnation for our sins, so we’ve dispensed of hell. When that goes, where is the horror of life after death? Ghosts are more frequently seen now as imprints, rather than spirits with consciousness. Demons are all but delegated to mythology. Possession is mental illness. We are a rational people, in love with science and superstitions are seen as quaint. We don’t need to protect ourselves from fairies, from demons or from ghosts. Science has proven to itself that they don’t exist, so if we do find ourselves afraid, we can dial back the terror by reminding ourselves of that.
Halloween is now the one day we can pretend we believe, with tongue firmly in cheek. It simply doesn’t work when the other 364 days of the year we don’t believe. It’s no different from the person who is charitable on Christmas and a miser the rest of the year.
You either believe or you don’t.
The decline of classical horror coincided with the decline of Christianity. Even Jesus spoke of, and taught about dealing with ghosts and demons. As he’s become more humanized, the esoteric sides of his spirituality, and our belief in such things have declined.
Simply put, it takes more to scare us now, because we’ve become a bit arrogant in our beliefs. Ghost hunting is done by technology, rather than personal intervention. Does a meter reading or EVP convince anyone of belief in life after death? Likely not.
What convinced generation after generation of its existence was in large part, the imagination. We took what we were taught and let our imaginations run with it. It wasn’t the footsteps of a maniac following us in the dark on Halloween that frightened us. It was our footsteps, alone in the dark, on the one night of the year where we shared the path with those who came before us that filled us with dread, and on occasion, terror.
And it was our imaginations, and perhaps that autumn wind which brought it all to life.