Celtic Origins of Halloween Traditions

Did you know that many of the Halloween traditions we use today originated on the Old Sod? In Ireland, the Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced saa-win) dates back to before the 10th century when the spoken traditions were written down. Jack-o-lanterns, costumes and trick-or-treating and even bobbing for apples came to us from these ancient traditions.

jack-o-lanternsIn Ireland, the Celts would light a large bonfire to celebrate the end of harvest and mark the beginning of the winter season as October ended and November began. It also marked the beginning of a new year, and the fire was an important symbol for the renewal. The community bonfire was so special that people would carve up turnips to take part of the bonfire back home to re-light their hearth. When Irish people first came to the U.S. and carried on this tradition of lighting carved turnips, the closest thing they could find was a pumpkin and so the jack-o-lantern was born.

Bobbing for apples was a game originally called snap apple, with apples hung up on strings. Then, blindfolded children would try to eat them. This game is also played today with doughnuts.

kids dressed as ghosts for halloweenCostumes and disguises were part of the Samhain celebration because that was the night that spirits or fairies walked the earth. The bonfire was also intended to ward off these spirits, but if you wore a disguise, any spirit not dissuaded by the fire might mistake you for another spirit and leave you alone.

Trick-or-treating also came from these disguises. Some say that the poor would visit the celebration feasts of the rich to collect items to use for their own celebrations. Other places say that people traveling from house to house sang songs in exchange for food. Another tradition suggests that trick-or-treating started as those disguised asking for offerings on behalf of the spirits. Pranks were part of imitating the spirits – and grotesque faces on turnips was a common prank!

Today, many of these traditions are still carried on. If you visit Ireland and even parts of Scotland at the end of October, you may encounter these celebrations. Bonfires are lit at this time of year in the Scottish Highlands, on the Isle of Man, parts of Wales and Ulster.