4 Marks of Celtic Influence on Catholic Halloween

Here are four facets of Halloween that point to its Celtic origins as one of the traditional quarter days in Ireland.

Daniel Maclise, “Snap-Apple Night, On the Festival of Hallow Eve,” 1833
Daniel Maclise, “Snap-Apple Night, On the Festival of Hallow Eve,” 1833 (photo: Public Domain)

The origins of Halloween customs and traditions have been lost or, at best, obscured over time by secular commercialism. Halloween derives from the early Celtic Church and civilization and the link with the feast of All Saints or All Hallows on Nov. 1. Much of what passes now for Halloween tradition in the United States comes from Irish immigrants in the 19th century, who brought their songs, music and culture. Here are four facets of Halloween that point to its Celtic origins as one of the traditional quarter days in Ireland.

1. Halloween and Oíche Shamhna

The Irish name for Halloween is Oíche Shamhna (Ee Ha Howna], meaning Samhain Eve. Samhain was one of the traditional Celtic quarter festivals. Along with Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasa, the quarter days marked significant new phases in the year. In 835, All Hallows’ Day was officially switched to Nov. 1, the same date as Samhain, by  Pope Gregory IV.  This was to counteract the Celtic practices prevalent at Samhain and introduce Christianity’s own reference point of reverence for the deceased, purgatory and the afterlife.

There is no doubt from evidence and literature that Samhain was the preeminent feast among the Celts and the most important of the four quarter days. The celebration rituals at Samhain were associated with the end of summer and the start of winter. Superstition held that this was the time that humans were most susceptible to divine and supernatural intervention and interference.

2. The Faithful Departed

For the Celts, reverence and respect for the deceased were most pronounced at Samhain. This translated across to Halloween with the feast of All Saints, followed by All Souls Day. In Ireland, Halloween saw candles lit and left in the window as a mark of respect for the dead. It is a time dedicated by Catholics to remember the faithful departed. The name Hallowe’en originated in the mid-18th century from “hallowed evening” or “holy evening,” the evening before All Hallows Day. 

Dr. Louise Nugent of University College Dublin notes, “The Martyrology of Oengus, written circa 800, records the Irish keeping All Saints on the 1st of November but additional feasts of All Saints of Europe on the 20th of April and All Saints of Africa on the 20th of December. Later the 1st of November became the sole commemoration date for All Saints in Ireland. In medieval times the church held a vigil on All Hallows’ Eve. During the vigil, worshippers would prepare for the feast day with prayers and fasting.” 

Dr. Nugent explains, “The souls of the dead were expected to return to the family home. Evil spirits were also thought to be active, and people avoided traveling alone on this night.”

Halloween crosses were made and placed above doors, and Holy Water sprinkled to protect the home. The theme of the return of the deceased overlaps pre-Christian and Christian Halloween traditions.

Irish Prayer – Passing a Graveyard
I salute you, the faithful of Christ
Who rest here awaiting the glorious resurrection.
May He who suffered the passion on your behalf
Grant you eternal rest.

3. Celtic Ritual and Tradition 

It is simplistic to suggest that the Christian Faith simply took over where Celtic Pagan worship and practice left off.  In his work on the rise of Christianity in the British Isles, Ronald Hutton indicates that it is more accurate to suggest “not that the Christian Church took the older religions into itself but that it provided a parallel service to them.” The idea is that the growing Christian religion had to be attractive in its own right, but it had similarities with the existing faiths. Hutton points to the fact “it had a rite of initiation, dependence on a savior figure and assurance of personal salvation … like the old faiths it gave victory in battle and its holy men and women were reputed to perform miracles.” 

It would be wrong however, to suggest that medieval Christianity was pagan worship with a veneer of Scripture. Since the earliest times, significant Christian feast days  — Christmas and Easter — had vigils that began the night before. This was also the case with All Saints, or All Hallows, hence the name Hallowe’en, shortened to Halloween.

4. Trick or Treat? Turnip or Pumpkin?

Celtic practices at Halloween included lighting bonfires, food and drink left as gifts for ‘visitors,’ welcoming candles lit, and various folk games that often related to trying to foresee who one’s future husband or wife might be.

Later from around the 1500s, Halloween included ‘mumming’ or ‘guising’ where people went from house to house disguised or in costume singing songs or chanting rhymes in return for food. Here it is valuable to understand that rural Ireland in these times would have been pitch dark at night.

It is thought this practice of moving from house to house was derived from people impersonating the souls of the dead and received gifts on their behalf. Impersonating the deceased was also believed to protect. 

In Britain, a variation on this had children travel house to house in exchange for ‘soul cake.’ Indeed these practices are the likely origins of Trick or Treating. And like the practice of carving a face out of a turnip to create a jack-o’-lantern, these practices were brought to North America by Irish immigrants. The traditions became assimilated. The turnip became a pumpkin, and the door to door fun became trick or treating.

If you wish to take one Celtic Halloween tradition, why not leave the lighted candle in your window to show your Catholic faith, and to remember the holy souls of the faithful departed?

Catholic cemetery

All Saints and All Souls (Oct. 30)

This week’s Register Radio shines a light on All Saints Day when Catholic News Agency’s Hannah Brockhaus tells the story of some of the Church’s newest saints and blesseds. Then we turn to All Souls and remembering the dead — even those we didn’t know — when we highlight the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Requiem Mass for the Homeless with composer Frank LaRocca of the Benedict XVI Institute.