The Halloween customs that we observe today had their beginnings many, many years ago. This holiday has had many influences from many cultures over the centuries. Many of the customs connected with the day are remnants of ancient "religious" beliefs and celebrations of the Celtic fire festival of "Samhain," (pronounced "sow-en," rhyming with cow), and then on to the Christian holidays of All Saints and All Souls Days.
Samhain was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. The Celts lived more than 2,000 years ago in what is now Great Britain, Ireland, and France. Their new year began on November 1.
Legends tell us that on the night of October 31, after the crops were all harvested and stored for the long winter, all the hearth fires in Ireland would be extinguished. The Druids would meet in the hilltop at Tlachtga, 12 miles from the royal hill of Tara, in the dark oak forest (oak trees were considered sacred). The Druids were the learned class among the Celts. They were religious priests who also acted as judges and lawmakers. They were also poets, scholars, and scientists.
The Druids would light a sacred bonfire and offer sacrifices of crops and animals. As they danced around the fires, the "season of the sun" passed and the "season of darkness" would begin. The extinguishing of the hearth fires symbolized the "dark half" of the year. The re-kindling from the Druidic fire was symbolic of the returning life that was hoped for in the spring.
In the Celtic belief system, turning points, such as the time between one day and the next, or the meeting of sea and shore, were seen as magical times. The turning of the year was the most potent of these times. The day before Samhain was the last day of the old year and the day after Samhain was the first day of the new year. The time "between years" was when the "veil between the worlds" was at its thinnest, when the dead could walk and communicate with the living, and the veils between past, present and future could be lifted in prophecy and divination.
The Druid rites were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration who held the root-wisdom of the tribe, rather than as sources of dread.
The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land of eternal youth and happiness called "Tir nan Og." They did not have the concept of heaven and hell that the Christian church later brought into the land.
In an effort to suppress and offset these pre-existing pagan beliefs, Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them ... if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship. In terms of quickly adding people to the Christian faith, this was a brilliant concept and it became a basic approach used in Catholic missionary work.
Just like Christmas, and several other customs and traditions of Christianity, many pagan holidays and customs were absorbed and "changed" by the Church. All Saints Day was first introduced by Pope Gregory III around 735 A.D., on May 13. It later got moved to February 21.
One hundred years later, in 835A.D., Pope Gregory IV, still trying to put an end to the pagan customs associated with the day, changed the day to November 1 to correspond with the Celtic practice of Samhain. He decreed that the day was to be a universal church observance of the "highest" rank.
The Mass that was said on this day was called "Allhallowmas" (the mass of all the holy ones). The evening before All Saints Day became known as "All Hallow e'en" (the evening of all the holy ones). The name, "Halloween," is actually derived from All Saints Day.
The old beliefs associated with Samhain never entirely died out. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong to be satisfied with the new, more abstract Catholic feast honoring saints. Recognizing that something that would absorb the original energy of Samhain was necessary, the church tried again to supplant it with a Christian feast day. This time it established November 2nd as All Souls Day ... a day when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead.
While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion's supernatural deities as evil, and began to associate them with the devil. As representatives of the rival religion, Druids were considered evil worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits. Celtic belief in supernatural creatures (like elves and fairies) persisted, while the church made deliberate attempts to define them as being no longer merely dangerous ... but wicked. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be demonic.
The celebration of Halloween came to America with the early Irish immigrants, but by then, it had already started to lose its occult-like overtones and was becoming merely a jovial harvest celebration ... a night of bobbing for apples, eating popcorn, and telling ghost stories around a bonfire. In other words, it was already evolving into the holiday for children of which we in the 20th century are so familiar.