Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Halloween: A Holiday of Irish Origins

A Halloween party from the 1800s, from
an original illustration for Robert Burns'
poem named Halloween, 1841 and
Wikimedia Common

By Adrian McGrath

We all know what Halloween is ... or we think we do. It is a fun time for children to go around the neighborhood at early night on October 31, ring the neighbor's doorbell, say "Trick or Treat," and get some candy. Maybe the adults will join in and have a party with various Autumn foods like pumpkin pie and a perhaps a lively drink. People might watch a scary movie on television or visit a nearby "Haunted House."

But Halloween has its origins way back in time and far away from the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean to what was once Celtic Europe and specifically to ancient Ireland.

October 31 to us is Halloween, but in olden days it was the Celtic New Year. The Celtic people possibly originated in Eastern Europe or maybe farther East. Centuries before the time of Christ, they traveled to the west and settled in Central Europe and eventually to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) and to parts of France (Brittany), Britain, and Ireland. Many came to America as their descendants emigrated to the USA and Canada many centuries later.

Before St. Patrick and the Christian monks and missionaries went to Ireland, paganism or Druidism was the main religion there. The people observed certain days of the year as being especially significant as they related to the four seasons. Seasons were important because people's lives depended on the seasonal weather for the health of crops, animals, and humans. 

There were Celtic or Gaelic festivals for those days -- Imbolg (the start of Spring), Bealtaine (Summer), Lughnasadh or Lunasa (Autumn or Fall), and Samhain (Winter).

A witch and her cauldron.
In pagan times in Europe and Ireland,
witches were not "evil" but simply
followed a belief in Nature and
used the cauldron for cooking and
herbal medicine.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons 
and John William Waterhouse, 1886
called The Magic Circle

Samhain (pronounced as SOW win) began at night time on October 31 and went to night time on November 1. It was (and still is) the the start of the darkest, coldest days of the year and the Celtic New Year. It marked the day when the warm weather would leave and a more dangerous time of year would come. Food could be scarce, animals might die from the cold, and human life might be in peril.

Jack-O-lanterns from pumpkins today, originally
were made in Ireland from carved turnips and rutabagas.
Some claim they represent the poor souls in
purgatory. Photo from Wikimedia Commons  
and Mansour de Toth (Laszloen).

Samhain, therefore, became a day of great significance to the ancient Celts and Irish. It was an end and a beginning. And by its nature, with the winter chill approaching, it was a time of darkness, awe, and even fear.

On that night of Samhain bonfires were lit, and it was believed that the spirits of those people who died in the past year would once again walk the Earth. 

Jack-o-lanterns were eventually made as part of this festival day, but they were actually made at first out of turnips or rutabagas. The tradition spread to America by using the pumpkins, of course; they were plentiful in America and much larger. 

As part of the festival day, mummers became popular. Mummers were people who wore fanciful masks or costumes and roamed about town, some singing or playing musical instruments. 

In the pagan beliefs, in olden days, there were witches; but they were not scary, evil sorceresses. They were simply people, usually women, who respected Nature and the powers of the Earth. They may have understood herbs and herbal medicine. They cooked and created healing potions in big cauldrons. 

Contrary to what some people later falsely believed, the witches did not worship the Devil. The Devil, in fact, is a creature from the Christian religion and did not exist at all in the ancient Celtic pagan Old Religion. Yes, there was a belief in magic; but it was not for destructive purposes as many modern, popular movies might depict. 

Over centuries Christianity came to Europe and Ireland. Tragically, the peaceful, Nature-worshiping witches were persecuted brutally in Christian Europe during a period called The Burning Times. People -- mainly women but not always women but men and children too -- were falsely accused of witchcraft and of consorting with the Devil. Many, many innocent lives were destroyed by pseudo-religious fanatics who literally went on witch hunts. 

Witches were hunted down and burned at the stake. In early America, as in the Salem witch trials, they were hanged by the neck until dead. Some were crushed to death under heavy rocks.

A melodramatic depiction of a witch trial
A lithograph by Joseph Baker from 1892
From Wikimedia Commons
See my article on an Irish Catholic woman named
Goody Glover, falsely accused of witchcraft.

In pagan times in Europe, the Catholic Church decided that it was too difficult to suppress Samhain and many other pagan beliefs, and found it easier to simply replace pagan days of observation with Christian ones. 

This method of substituting a Christian holy day for a pagan holiday is how Halloween began. The word "Halloween" was possibly first used in the mid 18th century. "All Hallow's Eve" may have appeared in the mid 1500s. Broken down, the word "Halloween" means "Hallow" (or holy) and "Eve" (the day before). So, this meant the eve or day before a Holy Day. The Holy Day the Church set up was All Saints Day, November 1, followed by All Souls Day, November 2. So, Halloween evolved at that time on the calendar to replace Samhain.

All Saints Day was originally in May and was a day for remembering saints and martyrs. But in 835 AD, Pope Gregory IV moved the holy day to November 1, placing it on top of Samhain.

The traditions of Halloween and Samhain evolved over time and spread from Ireland to the United States as the Irish and other Celtic peoples left Europe for the USA. 

Over a million Irish left Ireland during the Great Famine (Potato Famine) from 1845 to 1850. And a million or more died of starvation and related diseases in Ireland.  They died not because of bad potatoes alone but because of centuries of political and religious oppression at the hands of Great Britain.

The Irish who came to America brought their customs and culture with them. Today in the USA almost 40 million people are of at least part Irish descent. This is many times more than the number of Irish today in Ireland itself.

Naturally, in the USA the Halloween holiday has become commercialized.  Almost everyone buys bags of candy, costumes, and food for parties. Halloween has become a very popular holiday for commerce and money-making, right behind Christmas and Thanksgiving. Today it is mainly great fun.

A black cat, today the symbol of Halloween,
was seen as a servant of the witch.
This particular image of the black cat was actually
used by a political group, Anarchists for The
Industrial Workers of the World, circa 1961. Anarchists
(and Anarcho-Syndicalists, organized labor groups)
used the color black; and the black cat represented
sabotage against an oppressive capitalist or employer.
Photo Wikimedia Commons
But ...

Before we conclude, however, let me take a moment ... to discuss cats. 

(Pardon me, I am a cat person more than a dog person. So, this is something that matters to me.) 

The insanity of the Burning Times, when witches were burned to death, was horrible not only for people accused of witchcraft but also for cats, specifically black cats. Some ignorant and hateful people foolishly believed black cats could shape shift and turn into bad people. 

Some people even believed that a black cat would do the witch's bidding and become a spy or scout for the witch upon command. (Really? Just try telling your cat to do something and see what happens.) 

Sadly, black cats were often killed as a result throughout Europe. This lunacy even occurred in America where the Puritans -- who conducted the infamous Salem witch trials -- persecuted black cats and people who had them as pets. (I am not sure what was the fate of black cats in Ireland. Perhaps someone living in Ireland today can let me know? Also, see more about the persecution of an Irish Catholic woman falsely accused of witchcraft in old Massachusetts at my article on Goody Glover, here.)  

So, if you or your children go trick-or-treating this year, remember the holiday has ancient origins. Some of the history is fascinating and some is brutal. 

Halloween is a unique and popular American holiday filled with spirits and scary stories; but it has very ancient origins thanks to the Celts and to the Irish.


  1. Nice post reading it in Ireland looking forward to Halloween

  2. Jack o lantern Did the Celtics no keep the heads of their dead to take strength from their soul and brought them out at samhain so that the spirit could visit them you could keep the heads of your relatives the same way. Well that's what we do anyway��

  3. thanks Adrian, I learnt a thing or three reading your blog. Looking forward to the next one!

  4. That was a very informative blog. I like to read a out the ancient and medieval times. Good job.

  5. Once again, informative, and important. Thank you.DeeWhy