All Hallows Eve / Halloween and Samhain: Honor spirits with ancient traditions

Row of lit carved pumpkins illuminated against the dark

Photo in public domain courtesy of Pixabay

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 31: Can you feel that chill creeping up your spine?

Get the candy ready and put the finishing touches on your costume, because Halloween is a huge festival nationwide! As Western cultural influences spread worldwide, too, Halloween has steadily been gaining worldwide popularity—even in countries as far from North America as Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Deeply rooted in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, today’s Halloween is considered by many to be the only time of year that spirits can roam the earth. From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin and ancestors are held close. Don’t worry, it’s not all solemn and bone-chilling, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids. So grab your best ghoulish mask and get the (Halloween) party started!

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE DEEPER ROOTS? This week, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker is publishing an entire five-part series about Americans’ beliefs concerning Hell. Part 1 of the series includes a fun 10-question quiz to see how much you know about … Hell.


Round turnip with two eyes and slit mouth cut out

A hallowed-out Irish turnip lantern, preserved from the early 20th century. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. During this time of year, cattle were brought down from summer pastures, bonfires were lit for the purpose of divination and as a protective and cleansing measure. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities. (Wikipedia has details.)

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain, and hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their monstrous carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today’s Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the holiday, in slightly varying ways. Most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines. (Learn more from


Allhallowtide,” the triduum of Halloween, recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of their deceased loved ones. The two days following All Hallows Eve—Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that Christians believe are now with God. In medieval England, Christians went “souling” on Halloween, begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers in local churches.

Halloween’s secular side has emerged during the past century, and today, trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, visiting haunted houses, watching horror movies and dressing up like favored characters has become custom in Western culture. ( offers Halloween videos and more.) Recent estimates are that the very diverse American business of “haunted attractions” brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and the commercial elements of Halloween have spread from North America to Europe, South America, Australia, Japan and parts of East Asia.

Close-up of pile of candy cornNEWS AND TIPS:

This Halloween is expected to be the most celebrated in a decade—perhaps because it falls on a Friday this year. In Britain, they’re expecting some of the biggest Halloween celebrations to date! (Read more in The Guardian.)

American consumers are likely to spend approximately $370 million on pet costumes this Halloween—$70 million more than last year—according to TIME. That spending is a 40 percent jump from 2010.

The “urban legend” of poisoned Halloween candy doesn’t have a lot of merit, but Halloween does pose some real dangers, writes USA Today. Some things to be cautious of: drunk driving and drunk drivers; injuries from pumpkin carving; trips and falls from costumes and decorating; and dental havoc from too-sticky candy. And don’t let Fido get a hold of that treat bag—chocolate can be lethal for dogs.

Techies have a multitude of apps to choose from this Halloween, including Zombify and Vampify, complete with animated effects for photos. (More here and from the Boston Globe.)


What’s Halloween without some good costumes and tasty treats?

Samhain: Pagans, Wiccans celebrate harvest festival

People gathering around candles, performing a ritual

Neopagans participate in a Samhain ritual that honors the dead. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 31: Cook up some acorn squash and apples, make a toast with mulled wine and learn the root of some of Halloween’s most ancient traditions, on Samhain. (You may also want to read our extensive column on the three days of Christian festivals that were established to eclipse Samhain.)

Originally a Gaelic festival that marked the end of harvest season and ushered in winter, Samhain is now celebrated by Wiccans and Pagans as a festival of darkness. In contrast to Beltane, which embraces the light and fertility of spring, Samhain rituals center around the spirits of the dead—both friendly and unfriendly. (Wikipedia has details.) From the earliest days, this time of year has been seen as the point at which the veil between this world and the afterworld is at its thinnest point.

Born of a pastoral people, Samhain began in the oral traditions of Irish mythology; it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when visiting Christian monks began penning some of the tales. Several essential events occurred annually on Samhain, such as taking stock of herds and ushering livestock into winter pastures. As even the earliest cultures believed that spirits could access our world most easily at this time of year, bonfires were lit to protect and cleanse people, livestock and pastures. Feasts were prepared, and the spirits of deceased ancestors were invited into the home with altars. Evil spirits were kept away with “guising” (costuming to fool the spirits), and turnip lanterns were often set in windows to scare evil spirits or to represent spiritual beings—a custom that likely evolved into the modern jack-o-lantern.

Several sites in Ireland are still associated with Samhain, such as Oweynagat—the “cave of the cats”—where otherworldly beings were said to emerge. The Hill of Ward in County Meath is rumored to have been the site of large Samhain gatherings and bonfires.


Today’s Wiccans observe Samhain as a Sabbat, while Pagans—including Neopagans and Celtic Reconstructionists—attempt to observe its rituals as close as possible to their original form. (Learn more from The 19th and 20th centuries have brought a revival in ancient pagan festivals and customs, with an upsurge in visitation to age-old sites. Traditional colors include black, orange and white; foods include turnips, apples, gourds, nuts, mulled wines and beef; herbs include allspice and sage.