Halloween dates back to ancient Celts

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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.

Discover more about Samhain

Samhain- forerunner of the modern Halloween

Shamrock – national flower of Ireland

Irish Symbols – each with their own fascinating origins and still relevant today

Celtic jewelry – symbols of love and friendship

Celtic festivals

Celtic Cross

Brigid’s Cross

How Ireland protects its harp and shamrock emblems…take care if using them

Why the Guinness harp faces the opposite way to the official Irish harp

Yule – ancient festival pre-dating Christmas

Easter Lily – sign of peace and hope for the future

St Patrick myths and legends

Irish Art – clues to ancient Irish cultures and beliefs

The Green Man – symbol of rebirth

The Awen (The Three Rays of Light)

Celtic Tree of Life (Crann Bethadh)

Triskele – From the Greek meaning ‘three-legged’

Celtic Cross – symbol of faith and culture

Celebrating the rich diversity of Irish culture

Irish Art – pre-dating the Pyramids

Celtic Cross jewelry – steeped in history and symbolism

Ēostre – the Spring Equinox – forerunner of Easter

Beltane – festival of fire to welcome the summer

New age beliefs about Ogham

The Spiral – thought to represent the sun

Brigid’s Cross (Brighid’s Cross, St Brigit’s Cross)


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