Origins and History of Halloween


The ancient Celts of Ireland and Scotland observed an annual harvest festival on November 1 known as Samhain (pronounced sow'-en or sow'-een), which marked the end of summer and was thought to be the time when the souls of those who had perished during the year journeyed to the "otherworld." During Samhain, it was believed, the dead were able to mingle with the living; ghosts, demons, fairies, and other supernatural beings literally walked the earth. Bonfires were lit and ritual sacrifices were made to honor and appease them.

When the peoples of the British Isles became Christianized during the early Middle Ages these customs and beliefs were transformed, though not abandoned. The Church designated the first and second of November All Saints Day (or All Hallows Day) and All Souls Day respectively -- some say in an effort to eradicate the holiday's pagan trappings -- and October 31 came to be known as All Hallows Even, or Hallowe'en for short.

Among the pre-Christian traditions that survived was the belief that spirits of the dead commingle with the living on the Eve of All Hallows. Related customs arose, or perhaps evolved from existing ones, such as "mumming" and "souling," which entailed the wearing of masks and costumes -- often in imitation of the dead and otherworldly beings -- general mischief making, and knocking on doors to offer prayers in exchange for treats called "soul cakes."

We know little of how these traditions evolved in the intervening centuries, but by the mid-1800s Irish immigrants were bringing the observance of All Hallows Eve to North America, where, combined with homegrown customs, it eventually morphed into the secular, intensely commercialized holiday we celebrate today.

I do think I will skip some of the customs, but I wouldn't mind a soul cake. So now we know why.


  1. Barbara Monajem // October 9, 2009 at 12:11 PM  

    Very enjoyable posts on Hallowe'en, Mary. I love your graphics!! Hallowe'en is my favorite festival. I'd like a soul cake, too... Do you by any chance know of a recipe?

  2. Patrice // October 9, 2009 at 1:10 PM  

    Hi Mary,
    It's amazing what we learn here at PFS! Now, I know why we have ghosts and witches knocking on our doors and demanding to be fed! Little demons that they are. So few people decorate their homes in WPB where I live. In NJ we always had pumpkins and a pile of hay, or homes with graveyards in their front yards. Something for the kids to get excited about.
    So, thanks for sharing.

  3. Joanne // October 9, 2009 at 1:37 PM  

    Interesting facts and traditions, Mary. Who knew?
    And I agree with Barbara, I'd like that soul cake recipe, too.

  4. Pamela Varnado // October 9, 2009 at 2:42 PM  

    Very interesting. Now that my kids are grown, Halloween isn't as exciting for me as it use to be, but I still enjoy passing out goodies.

    FYI: Everyone wants that recipe.

  5. Lynne Roberts // October 9, 2009 at 4:51 PM  

    Very interesting! Okay, I was curious so I found these:

    I hope the links work!

    : )

  6. Mary Ricksen // October 9, 2009 at 5:29 PM  

    thanks for posting everyone! I'm gonna go look at the links Lynn posted for us. Yummy!

  7. Mary Ricksen // October 9, 2009 at 6:52 PM  

    I'm not as lovable as I thought huh? No comments from my PFS buddies, save sweet Barbara, Patrice, Joanne and Pam, thanks you guys. Sniff, sniff. I love you.

  8. Scarlet Pumpernickel // October 9, 2009 at 9:19 PM  

    Mary loved the blog. Much of it was new to me! And tell the pronouncation of Samheim! I've struggled with that one since the first time I saw it.

  9. Mary Marvella // October 9, 2009 at 9:21 PM  

    Hey, Mary R. I'm a tad late here. Love the interesting things you found for us. Pam has been under the weather, so you should feel honored she made it here today.

    I've been running all day!

  10. Nightingale // October 10, 2009 at 10:51 AM  

    Very interesting Mary and I'm glad you put in the pronunciation. Most people I've heard talk about the publisher by the same name have mispronounced it.

  11. Lynne Roberts // October 10, 2009 at 4:35 PM  

    Mary, please let me know if you try the soul cake recipes. They sounded good. ; )

    And for the record, you're very loveable. : )

  12. Mary Ricksen // October 10, 2009 at 8:24 PM  

    Thanks for stopping by.
    You are all so special to me.