Halloween dates back to ancient Celts

How Irish settlers took Halloween to America

This week millions of children around the world will dress up in scary costumes and play pranks on their neighbours to celebrate Halloween.

How Irish settlers took Halloween to America

The holiday has become the one of the biggest commercial events in the American calendar, but the traditions actually originated in Ireland.

Halloween was first introduced to America in the 1840s by Irish settlers who had emigrated following of the potato famine. The holiday that we enjoy today has changed quite a bit from the ancient Celtic festival it came from, although some of the customs and traits can still be compared.

Boundary between dead and living blurred

The ancient Celts would celebrate the festival of Samhain (pronounced sa-win) from sunset on the 31st October until sunrise on the 1st November each year.

Samhain marked the end of the summer and the beginning of the winter, the darker half of the year. It was also believed that Samhain was the time when the boundary between the world’s dead and the world’s living was most blurred.

People made offerings to fairies to ask for protection over the winter. The dead were also at the forefront of the festival and places at the table would be set for those family members that had passed.

Samhain would fall around the time of the last harvest of the year, so traditions such as carving out a pumpkin and bobbing for apples can be dated back to the Celtic festival. Apple bobbing is still a popular ritual at Halloween parties today, but the original significance was that the first unmarried person to successfully bite an apple, would be the next one to get married.

Hollowed out animal heads worn as masks

Trick or treating now involves children visiting the houses of their neighbours and threatening a mischievous prank, if they don’t receive sweets and chocolates. In the ninth century, Europeans would walk from village to village begging for soul cakes in return for their prayers.

As recently as the 1950s and 60s, children in Ireland would not go out trick or treating at Halloween, but go out on ‘Mischief night’ where unhinging garden gates and knocking over bins and were the main examples of mischief.

The art of dressing up in scary costumes can also be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain. The costumes used by the Celts included hollowed out animal heads worn as masks, with the intention of scaring away evil spirits. Today’s outfits of sexy witches and famous characters from blockbuster films seem quite tame in comparison.

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