How Samhain Evolved into Modern Day Halloween


Samhain Offerings

Halloween. To most of us, it is the granddaddy of frightening days, the quintessential depiction of all things that go bump in the night. It is the hands down, no argument leader in festive fun for both kids and adults and it gets more popular each year. In fact, it’s now the second most popular holiday in the United States.  However, the commercialized version we celebrate now is much different than the original celebration. Most people don’t know that this holiday dates back to an ancient Celtic tradition which was held on the night of October 31st.  That pre-Christian holiday is known as Samhain (pronounced SAH-win, SAH-ween, or SOW-in depending on dialect). Samhain has its roots in Celtic Ireland, dating back over 2,000 years ago.

Samhain is the midpoint of the year between the light half (summer) and the dark half (winter). On that day, our ancestors would celebrate the spirits of those who had departed from the physical world. Beliefs were that on Samhain, the veil, or protective division, between the living world and the underworld was at its thinnest. It was so thin that the spirits of the dead could pass through the veil unimpeded. In ancient times, this invisible boundary was taken quite seriously, and on Samhain night all boundaries were considered dangerous places.  People would go out of their way to avoid boundaries between properties or other geographical divisions. Ghosts were said to lurk on bridges, borders, and crossroads as well as traditional resting places for human souls, such as cemeteries. The fear of roaming souls was so great that bonfires were lit and sacrifices were made to help guide them back to the otherworld.

Frightening Sight - Samhain Origins

A Brief Look at Pagan Holidays

On the subject of pre-Christian, or what is now referred to as Pagan holidays, there are four major and four minor celebration times during the year. When looking at them from the context of ancient Europe, Samhain was the most important of the four. It was one of the four seasonal quarterly celebrations, but elevated in significance because it was also a celebration of the dead.  Landowners and families would evaluate food supplies and herd animals to determine how resources would be allocated for winter at Samhain. Ancestors were honored and invited to the home whilst harmful spirits, which were everywhere on that night, were warded off. Some of the methods used to ward spirits off became part of the celebration, however the reasons were lost.

The custom of wearing both costumes and masks on Halloween can be traced back to early Samhain practices. Anyone moving at night wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves. They wanted to appear as harmful spirits and thus avoid harm from the real harmful spirits. It was a process of “blending in” with all things that go “bump in the night” and was essential when travelling from place to place. Additionally, huge bonfires and banquets played a large part in the celebrations. The hearth fire in each house was extinguished before the celebrations began. Everyone in the town would gather the bones of slaughtered animals and bring them to be burned in a communal bonfire. This fire was then used as the source flame to reignite every household fire. The practice was meant to cleanse the hearth for the year. Food was prepared and huge feasts were laid out for both the living and the dead. The symbolic food prepared for the ancestors was later distributed to those who were in need as a gesture of community.

Bonfire - Samhain origins

From Honoring the Dead to Demonic – How the Church Whitewashed a Sacred Celebration

The Church made it a top priority to destroy the customs and religious practices of all ancient European cultures. Samhain was at the top of their list. Remember that the term pagan was used interchangeably with evil, demonic, or “of the devil” in ancient times. A person or an event being branded as pagan would set in order, a series of actions to destroy it. Christian missionaries branded all holidays and the Gods and Goddesses of the Celts as pagan, which put them on the same level as the Christian devil. The religious leaders of the Celts, commonly know as the Druids had the same fate. They were considered evil beings who prayed to demonic Gods and spirits and were openly identified as purveyors of a dangerous religion.  The Celtic underworld was considered equal with the Christian version of hell. Any spirits that returned from the underworld, or crossed the veil, were branded as demonic. Today we know that this was done to eliminate any competition to the Church, and to keep recent converts to Christianity from returning to the ways of their forefathers.

In their attempts to erase Samhain and it’s significance, the Church created a new holiday which would be celebrated on November 1st, known as All Saints Day. Other terms were, All Hallows Day, Hallowmas, and the Feast of All Saints. The purpose of this new holiday was to honor all saints, both known and unknown, alive or dead. Once established, the church started to spin the narrative, repurposing Samhain as All Hallows Eve, working feverishly to diminish its significance. Basically they took the most important Celtic holiday and tried to make it look like a pre-cursor to All Hallows Day. To support the hijacking, the church went a step further and tried to completely eradicate all beliefs in the traditional Gods and Goddesses of the Celts. They demonized the old Gods and Goddesses as both dangerous and malicious; in reality because they were a threat to the belief system of Christianity. The Druids were branded as witches in the service of Satan and most went into hiding. Those who were not fortunate to escape, were quickly rounded up and executed. But only after an extended session of torture at the hands of a church inquisitor.

Samhain Origins

The Nefarious Methods of the Church

The practice of manipulating and changing pagan celebrations was commonplace by ancient Christians. As missionaries worked to convert all of Europe to Christianity in the first few centuries AD, they used every trick in the book to get it done. It was a difficult challenge filled with resistance. Most of the native population were reluctant to give up their Gods, Goddesses, and practices. The church saw this, not as a roadblock, but as a way to actually increase their numbers. Instead of banning those old practices, the church simply incorporated them into the Christian doctrine. This was a way of easing new converts to enter with some familiarity. Church holidays were set to coincide with traditional holidays at first. The long-term plan was to slowly phase out as much of the traditional elements as possible and replace them with Christian elements. We can see evidence of this with Christmas, Easter, and several others that worked using this plan. Yet when it came to Samhain, with its emphasis on the dead and supernatural, the church was conflicted.


What they did was to slowly twist the elements of Samhain, one by one, eventually clouding the original meanings. This process took hundreds of years. An example of how they accomplished this would be as follows. They people were encouraged to continue dressing up in costume, but not to frighten unwelcome spirits, but instead to honor Christian saints. Church sponsored processions of parishioners dressed as saints, angels, and even devils would parade around town, stopping at the edge of the civilized area. This bit of church trickery resembled the ancient pagan custom of escorting or driving unwanted ghosts to the town limits. It served the new church by giving an acceptable Christian basis to the custom of dressing up on Halloween. The celebratory bonfires were also repurposed by the church as another way to ward off the devil. The name of All Hallows’ Eve for the night of Oct. 31 was slowly transitioned into the name Hallowe’en and then Halloween, which it’s still known as today.

Success or Failure, You Decide

The strategy of combination by the Church appeared to gain the upper hand with the ancient pagans. Yet, inside the Church there was conflict. Many Church leaders disagreed with using a holiday with such an abhorrent background as a way to worship their God. Bible scholars can identify verses which prohibit exactly what took place. The church wanted to stamp out evil and replace it with good, but this particular change still allowed the old practices to exist. Even today, the facts still remain about Samhain and there are even people reverting to the old pagan ways. Good Christians send there children out dressed as ghosts, ghouls, and other supernatural creatures each Halloween thinking it’s nothing more than a fun event to get candy. In reality, they are supporting the fact that no matter how hard the overbearing Christian Church tried, they failed to eradicate the spirit of Samhain. Just as the Great Wheel turns, all things eventually come full circle and return to the place they originated.





Additional Reading

Thanksgiving’s Pagan Roots – The Secret in the Symbols

Old Gods, New Gods and the Blurry Line Separating Myth and Religion



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