By John Albiston
This year just about every newspaper, TV station, and news magazine will tell you the same story about the origin of Halloween. Online know-it-all blogs and YouTube channels will chime in as well – even the website of the Smithsonian will tell you that Halloween was based on an ancient Celtic festival called “Samhain” and that the Catholic Church invented Halloween as a failed attempt to cover up this ancient pagan holiday. There’s only one problem with this story. It’s not even remotely true.
There is a big difference between a history buff and a historian. History buffs read history, while historians do history. How is a formal history done? By collecting something known as “primary sources” – actual eye witness accounts of the events being retold. Just like a police detective, historians are completely uninterested in gossip and hearsay – they only want the facts ma’am.
So how does a historian investigate the claim about this ancient Celtic version of Halloween? Not by asking your friendly neighborhood aromatherapist, but by asking the ancients themselves.
So what do the ancient Celts, Romans, and Greeks have to say about the festival of Samhain? Nothing. The word literally does not exist. Going door-to-door? Nada. Wearing disguises and costumes? Zilch. Carving vegetables into lanterns? Not there. There is literally nothing whatsoever written either by the ancient Celts or their Roman neighbors that even remotely resembles our practice of Halloween.
Well what were the ancient Celts doing on October 31st? Funny you should ask. Oddly enough, the Celts didn’t do anything on October 31st because they didn’t have an October 31st or even a month of October at all. The Celts had a lunar calendar where every month was 29 days long. Even if they had some kind of fall festival (and there’s no evidence that they did) the date they would celebrate it would hop around in the exact same way Easter does year to year. Could this fictional festival ever land on October 31st? Sure. About every 30 years.
When do we first ever hear about Samhain? Not until the Middle Ages, about a thousand years after we first hear about Halloween. Even then we find a simple description of a feast celebrated at “summer’s end” (which is what “Samhain” literally means). Still no trick or treating, costumes, or witches.
Where does Halloween come from then? It was a part of an ancient Christian holiday invented in the 2nd century AD to remember fallen Christians who were killed by the Roman Empire. The holiday came to be known as All Saints Day. Like many ancient Christian holidays, like Christmas for example, the evening before the holiday was also part of the celebration. The evening before All Saints Day was called “Holy Evening” or put in old English, “Hallowed Eve”. Eventually a second holiday was added the day after called “All Souls Day” to remember family members who had died as well.
So when and where did these ancient Christian holidays turn from honouring the dead into fearing the dead? All evidence points to the good ole’ USA in the mid-1800’s – which also explains why everyone in Europe considers modern Halloween to be an American holiday.
Browsing the Library of Congress reveals that the oldest known book that explores the spooky side of the holiday was printed in Philadelphia in 1833 called “Transatlantic Sketches” where it casually mentions telling ghost stories around a campfire that night. The first book dedicated entirely to Halloween was a book of poems printed in Hartford in 1845. The oldest newspaper article comes from Washington D.C. in 1861 where it describes the holiday originally being a very Roman Catholic celebration from England, but proudly proclaims that “Young America” has invented a new way of celebrating the holiday by having people going door to door pelting their neighbors with turnips and cabbage.
The first time we see an image of Jack ‘o Lanterns in print is in 1898. Dressing up in costumes, scaring people, and bobbing for apples? 1904. And finally, the oldest mention of anyone going trick-or-treating in recorded history is in 1927 in Blackie, Alberta. Evidently the best part of Halloween is Canadian.
Now just because a celebration or tradition is mentioned for the first time in history doesn’t mean that that was the first time that event had ever occurred. It only means that this was the first time the celebration had been deemed as print worthy. It doesn’t necessarily tell us exactly when and where something got started, it just gives us a good general clue.
So the next time you hear that Halloween is some sort of an ancient pagan festival forced upon us by some dark satanic conspiracy just remember the key words “primary source” and feel free to do research on your own. Don’t rely on hearsay – discover the facts for yourself!
List of Primary Sources
-Marginal notes in the Martyrology of Bede (c.750AD) mention All-Saints being celebrated in Britain on November 1 (Lifshitz, in Head, Medieval Hagiography (2001), pp. 179–196)
–John Rhys, first professor of Celtic at Oxford university, was the first person to suggest that Samhain may have been the Celtic New Year in 1886. This was prior to the discover of the Coligny calendar, the only ancient Celtic calendar known to exist in 1897. The Coligny calendar, dating from the second century AD makes it clear that the Celtic new year is in the summer.
–James Frazer, Scottish social anthropologist, was the first to make the suggestion that the Catholic Church had co-oped an older pagan festival in 1907 after observing some All Saints celebrations in Italy.
American Book Sources (Library of Congress)
American Illustrated Sources (Library of Congress)
First American Newspaper Article, National Republican, October 31, 1861
First Recorded Evidence of Trick or Treating, “‘Trick or Treat’ Is Demand,” Lethbridge Herald, November 4, 1927, p. 5, dateline Blackie, Alberta, Nov. 3.