Life with Moxie: The origins of Halloween

Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity, life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration, protection and superstition. It is believed to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of (Sowin) Samhain, one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts.

The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, Scotland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. According to, “this day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death,” the darker half of the year.

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. – William Shakespeare

Celts believed that on the night before the new year, beginning at sunset, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.

At Samhain, it was believed that the Aos Sí, the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, needed to be appeased to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them.

In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

The night before, Oct 31 it was believed that ghosts emerged from the dead so people would leave food and wine and treats at their doors to keep them at bay. People would leave their houses wearing masks so they would be perceived as fellow ghosts.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble- William Shakespeare

Souling and guising

On all souls day Nov 2nd the needy would beg for pastries known as soul cakes, in return they would pray for people’s dead relatives. This was known as souling. In guising, young people would dress up and accept food, wine and gold in exchange for singing, telling jokes.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.

The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween.

Widespread observance of Halloween appeared relatively late in the United States. Most of the early settlers, the majority of whom were Protestant, did not observe Halloween. In pioneer days, Halloween practices were scattered and regional until the great Irish immigration in the 1840’s. The Irish brought with them not only the religious observance of Halloween, but also their folklore remnants of Halloween that included the traditional mischief. By the late 1800’s, Halloween had become a national observance in the United States, characterized by games, divinations, parties, and especially the children’s’ custom of going “trick-or-treating” dressed in masks and costumes.

By the 20th century, Americans became less tolerant of pranks, which often descended into vandalism. Community Halloween festivals, sponsored by local merchants, civic groups, and schools (especially PTA’s) have done much to curtail the formerly widespread vandalism. The folk vitality of witches, divinations, and the black arts have long receded into the past. But the decline in its significance has not affected small children, who still enjoy ringing doorbells and shouting “Trick-or-Treat”.

Today Halloween is big business with U.S. consumers spending $2.5 billion on costumes and decorations, add candy and the number goes to $6 billion, only second in spending to Christmas. It is a festival of consumption that is laden with social hierarchies. Costume significance and popularity, the “good house” that offers larger or better options than the “bad house” that was restricted in their giving and offered small or less desired choices. Post trick-or-treating trading between children or siblings lasts for days after- as do the stomach aches.

In countries around the world, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, people continue to usher in the winter season with gatherings and sweet treats. So this time of year, lets gather, share our treats with friends and family and understand that we a honoring those whom have died, presencing them in our celebrations while seeking protection from them going forward into the winter. Cheers and Happy Halloween.

Have ideas you’d like to add? Need more suggestions? Let me know!

Julie Koester is CEO of Life with Moxie, a Lifestyle Revolution Company, CEO of Moxie Creed, skincare beyond chemistry and Host of Life with Moxie Radio, Saturday’s at 1pm on 98.9 WGUF in Southwest Florida. You can reach her at

Passionate Living by Design, That’s Life with Moxie

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