Photo of a bonfire at night

Samhain (pronounced SOW-in) is one of the earliest Halloween celebrations. It originated over 2,000 years ago in parts of Great Britain, Ireland, and Northern France, and was celebrated by people known as Celts. Samhain means “the end of summer,” which is exactly what the Celts celebrated during this festival. Samhain was primarily a harvest festival, where the Celts thanked their gods for the food they harvested as summer came to an end.  

On Samhain, all Celts would put out the fires that warmed their houses and cooked their food and gather on nearby hills, where they would cook a final feast to celebrate the end of their harvest. During the celebration, their priests, called druids, would use only sparks to light bonfires on these hills. At the end of the celebration, Celts would carry still-burning embers from these bonfires back to their homes to start new fires in their hearths.  

Although Samhain was primarily meant to celebrate the final harvest and give thanks, it was also seen as a spooky holiday. They believed that the veil between our world and the spirit world was at its thinnest during this time between seasons. This was thought to make it easier for ghosts, faeries, and other spirits to cross over into our world from the spirit world. Along with symbolizing the start of a new year, the bonfires were also supposed to help keep these otherworldly beings away. Fortune telling was also common at Samhain celebrations, as it was thought that it was easier to predict the future in this in-between time.  

Two children in homemade ghost costumes made of sheets
Jack o Lanterns made from turnips
Did You Know?
  • Celts started the traditions of wearing costumes! They often wore masks to confuse spirits or dressed in grey to look like ghosts. Some would even wear animal skins and paper animal heads! 
  • Once in costume, the Celts would go door to door asking for food – the original “trick-or-treating"!  
  • The first Jack O’ Lanterns were not made from pumpkins at all, they were made from turnips! Check out our previous entry on Jack-o'-Lanterns for more information!  
  • One of the most popular fortune-telling games was for girls to carve their initials into an apple and then float the apple in a tub of water. Boys would then bite the apples out of the water, and it was believed that whoever’s apple he grabbed would be the person he married. Today, we just bob for apples for fun!  
  • Even though Samhain was known for being a spooky holiday since it marked the time between seasons, it was also the Celts New Year.