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Halloween History and Traditions is about how and where Halloween evolved from the Irish Celtic pagan festival Samhain.  Irish emigrants took the festival with them when they moved to America and other parts of the world.

Halloween is celebrated in many countries around the world especially in countries with Irish immigrants, in particular, the USA. This is because Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).  Samhain is when the Celts celebrated the end of the harvest, the beginning of winter and the time of human death. You will learn more about the festival of Samhain below along with other Halloween customs such as dressing up, ‘trick or treating’ and apple bobbing. Without a doubt, Halloween is the scariest, imaginative and fun festival of the year.


The Celtic Samhain festival is the origin of Halloween as it is known today.  The word Samhain is Gaelic for ‘summer’s end’. The Celts honoured the opposing balance of intertwining forces of existence, for example, night and day, life and death, cold and warmth, winter and summer. The Celtic year was divided into two seasons – light and dark (summer and winter). As the Celtic day began at dusk, Samhain begins at dusk on October 31 and ends at dusk on November 1.

The Celts

The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1 which marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of winter. Winter was associated with death because trees and plants die and dark cold nights and sickness and human death begin.

The Celts believed the Gods drew near to earth at Samhain, this very holy time of the year. They believed the boundaries between their world and the Otherworld were broken at this particular time of the year.  They also believed that the dead could return to the homes and places where they once lived and visit the people they lived with.  Druids (Celtic Priests) would gather people around and prophesies the future. These prophesies were a very important part of comfort during the long, dark, winter months.

Many scholars since believe that the celebration of ‘All Saint’s Day’ on November 1 originated in Ireland because of the beliefs of the Celtic Samhain festival. Many of the earlier Christian monks cleverly used pagan worships places and beliefs to transfer Christian teaching to the Celtic people. Samhain, the beginning of the Celtic New Year, was the most important of the ancient Celtic feasts.


During the Samhain festival of Halloween, the Druids built huge fires for the Celtic people to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic Gods. Villages also threw the bones of slaughtered cattle into the fires. The word “bonfire” comes from these ancient Celtic “bone fires”.

During the sacrificial fires, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins. When the festival was over the Celtic people re-lit their hearth fires,  from their sacrificial bonfires, extinguished before the festivities.

This custom is still very much alive today. However, the bonfires are now made of wood and old rubbish, much to the despair of the local fire departments!

Dressing Up

Today many Irish people dress up as ghosts, angels and devils.  This is a modern way to celebrate the old Celtic festival of Samhain (Halloween) who believed the dead returned to visit their loved ones.  Over recent years, costumes have become more and more elaborate.  They range from the many types of scary ghosts and evil costumes to any form of movie, cartoon or other well-known characters. There are many dressing up parties and festivals throughout the world.  The city of Derry in the North of Ireland can boast the largest and most famous Halloween festival of any place on this human and spirited earth!

Apple Bobbing

By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered most of the Celtic lands in England and Scotland. During the four hundred years they ruled there were two festivals of Roman origin which were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.  The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally remembered the death of their friends and loved ones. The second was a day to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple.  The mingling of this celebration into the festival of Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples during Halloween.

Apple bobbing is where a number of apples are put into a basin of water. You then have to try to bite one of the apples, floating in the water, without touching them. (Quite difficult!) Nowadays this part of the game is not practised as much as people don’t want to spoil their costume make-up.  Some people also think it is not very hygienic!

“Trick or Treat”

This is an activity for children on Halloween. As soon as it becomes dark, the children dress up into their Halloween costumes and go around knocking on the doors of the neighbours in the streets with an empty bag.  The children hope their neighbours will fill their empty bags with lots of sweets and other goodies by the end of the evening. The children go around in groups (or with their parents), knock on the neighbours’ doors and shout “trick or treat”. This means that if they aren’t given a treat, they will play a trick. It is expected that they get a treat and neighbours will shop for sweets, fruits and nuts to give the children for their Halloween bags when they come knocking at their doors.

Trick or treating is one of the main traditions celebrated at Halloween today.


This story is in our book “Halloween Word Games

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