pumpkins sitting outside surrounded by candles at night

Samhain: The Pagan Origin of Halloween

The spooky season is upon us! As a society, we have come to associate this time of year with costumes, jack-o-lanterns and trick or treating, but few know the origins from which these traditions started. Tonight marks the start of Samhain. Let’s talk about this ancient harvest festival and how its rituals led to the Halloween celebrated by the masses today!

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Have you ever stopped to consider the origin of your favourite holidays? Who first suggested that it would be a good idea to carve a face into a pumpkin and place a candle inside? When was it decided that it would be safe for children to go door to door asking for treats from strangers? Without context, it is all quite random, isn’t it?

Like many other holidays that our society has embraced today, Halloween has its roots in ancient Pagan traditions. Specifically, many of our current traditions can be traced back to the harvest festival Samhain, a festival that modern Pagans continue to celebrate today with feasts, rituals and a variety of different ceremonies depending on your specific spiritual path.

In the Northern Hemisphere, we celebrate Samhain starting at sundown on October 31st, and the celebrations will continue through November 1st. However, some celebrate this festival on the Full or New Moon that falls closest to this date. This is said to mark ‘summer’s end’ as we usher in the darker half of the year. It also coincides with the end of the harvest, celebrating and showing thanks for the food that has been gathered for the barren winter season. However, there is one incredibly important belief surrounding Samhain that laid the foundation for Halloween as we know it – The idea that this is the time of year in which the veil between the living and the dead is at it’s thinnest, allowing for communication with the dead.

While this may sound like a scary concept, especially when your views are coloured by the modern adaptation of Halloween with horror movies and all things scary, ancient Pagans saw this as an opportunity. Rituals are conducted to honour the dead, even welcoming them to celebrate with us for one night. For those who have recently lost a loved one, this is an opportunity for closure.

One of the most common ways to celebrate Samhain is with a great feast. In the past, this would consist of food that had just been harvested as a way to give thanks for the yield that year. For modern Pagans, anything can be included in the Samhain feast, but many will still include seasonal foods including apples, wheat and grains and root vegetables in honour of the festival’s roots. When setting the table, a place is set for our deceased loved ones as a way to welcome them to celebrate with us for the night.

For some, this is an opportunity to actively contact their loved ones through rituals including scrying, tarot, runes and other forms of divination. An ‘ancestors altar’ can be set up including photos, heirlooms and mementos of those who have passed, honouring them and welcoming them to send a message in some form to those of us who continue to walk in the land of the living. Another popular way of honouring those who came before us is to visit the gravesite of those who have passed, placing an offering such as dried herbs or fresh flowers, taking time to meditate or reflect upon memories of that individual and the time you shared together.

pumpkins sitting outside surrounded by candles at night with the title Samhain the Pagan origin of Halloween

The thinning of the veil doesn’t apply solely to those loved ones that we would happily welcome back to reconnect, unfortunately. For this reason, it’s important to focus not only on connecting with good spirits but also on taking steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from any bad, mischievous or troublesome spirits who may also take this opportunity to move amongst the land of the living. Many of these protection rituals have stuck with us, celebrated today as the holiday we know as Halloween.

Jack-o-lanterns are a great example! Today, these ornately carved pumpkins are placed all over as a popular form of decorating for the holiday, but the once served a darker purpose. Originally created by carving turnips, their frightening faces were designed to scare off evil spirits. Legend states that the process of lighting your jack-o-lantern can be traced back to a man named Jack who trapped the Devil himself, releasing him only after a promise that he would not have to go to hell when his time on Earth was through. However, when he did die, he discovered that he wasn’t allowed in Heaven either. Satan gave him a piece of coal which he placed inside of a turnip and used as a lantern as he wandered the Earth, with no final resting place to be found.

Costumes and masks were used for a similar purpose, worn on the night that the veil was at it’s thinnest as a means of disguising one’s face and moving safely among the evil spirits.

The origins of ‘trick-or-treating’ have long been up for debate. While some say that it can be dated back to ancient Pagans sharing food and alcohol during their celebrations on the night of Samhain, others say that the practice of knocking on doors and offering not to prank a home in exchange for Halloween goodies has more modern roots.   

Many modern Pagans have adopted a blend of old traditions with more modern celebrations. In our house, the night of October 31st is spent handing out candy to adorable children in costume as they knock on our door. This year, however, we have taken it a step further. We will be conducting a food drive for the local food bank, helping them with ‘their harvest’ for the coming colder months.

Tomorrow, November 1st, we will enjoy our Samhain feast and reflect on the loved ones that we miss and continue to hold dear.

How are you celebrating this year? Whatever your beliefs, I wish you and your loved ones an incredible holiday!

Blessed Samhain!

16 thoughts on “Samhain: The Pagan Origin of Halloween”

  1. This was so interesting! I actually had no idea about any of this. I think the idea of celebrating a traditional Samhain is lovely actually – feasts and spending time with family. I also wasn’t aware about this time of year is when the veil is thinnest. I knew that to be the case between 2-3ish in the morning but I didn’t know there was a specific time of year either x

    1. It’s interesting to see how beliefs and traditions come in waves. There was once a time where the Pagan belief system was highly prevalent, it dropped significantly and now in today’s society we are starting to see a resurgence again. I love the fact that so much of it revolves around family, friends and community.

  2. It’s always interesting to learn about the origins of famous holidays or dates and wonder where the traditions and ideas all came from. I actually did know a little about Samhain through watching Outlander, I believe it’s mentioned in the first season a few times but it was so great to read this post and understand what it means to people on a more personal level and what your own traditions are. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I love that shows like Outlander help to share a set of beliefs that aren’t as widely known and understood today as they once were

  3. It is always interesting to learn about the history behind different holidays. Halloween is an interesting one. I know some people don’t want to celebrate for religious reasons. The fact that Halloween kind of changed over time is cool where people are just trying to be festive. Though, there are some traditions we still need to be mindful about. Thanks for sharing!

    Nancy ? exquisitely.me

    1. I agree, it is really fascinating! There is also a significant amount of history surrounding the adaptation of Halloween into the Christian circles at the time. I really enjoy digging into things like this.

    1. I had a great Samhain. My husband and I actually travelled on Nov 1st, so we had our Samhain dinner together with our pups in our Airbnb

  4. Thank you for sharing this! I definitely feel like Samhain can seem scary just because of Halloween, but it truly sounds like a wonderful holiday to celebrate. My aunt is Wiccan and I love learning more about holidays such as this. Really opens your eyes to “new-to-me” concepts and traditions.

    1. It is such an empowering time! While there are clearly a number of connections to ‘Halloween’ as most people celebrate it the holiday, it is really so much more!

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