The Haunted History of All Hallows' Eve

From harvest festivals of old to Halloween today, the meaning behind All Hallows' Eve is steeped in history.

Updated August 29, 2023
jack-o'-lanterns on a bench

Tombstones and costumes, Samhain and harvest, there's much more to All Hallows' Eve than the modern mischief it has become today. So what exactly is All Hallows' Eve?

What was once a Christian holiday became a night for those to embrace and use the temporarily thin veil between this world and the next. Come a little closer to the light. You won't want to be too close to the shadows while learning the meaning behind All Hallows' Eve. 

What Is All Hallows' Eve?

Few know, or many have forgotten, that All Hallows' Eve started as a Christian holiday that falls on the day before All Saints' Day. The holiday was the result of a blending of the Celtic celebration of Samhain with the Christian church's All Saints' Day.

The result? A new religious holiday that both groups could embrace. This type of mirroring of what the church considered pagan holidays and celebrations was the grand solution for bringing these cultures into the church's fold. Although All Hallows' Eve is still observed as a church holiday, the modern non-religious version is known as Halloween

Tracing the Origin of All Hallows' Eve

In an effort to draw in new souls, leaders began to incorporate elements of pagan celebrations into the new Christian religious festivities. All Hallows' Eve bridged the gap between the two cultures and made the new religion sweeping across the island of Scotland more recognizable. Not only to appease Christians, but as a way to draw pagans into their community and grow the numbers of the church. 

History of Samhain

In the culture of the ancient Celts, there were just two seasons to the year. Beltane covered the spring and summer months, while Samhain marked the end of summer, and, with it, the old year. The season of Samhain lasted through the autumn and winter months. The Celts traditionally considered this day, October 31, the Celtic New Year's Eve, and they celebrated the passing of the old year with a great feast. It's not unlike how most celebrate New Year's Eve on December 31st now. 

The Feast of the Dead

Like the modern New Year's Eve, Samhain was a time to remember the past and look forward to the future. But unlike now, as part of that tradition, the Celts took time to honor their dead. They believed that on this one night, the veils between the worlds were very thin, and that the dead could come back to feast with family and friends. The Celts would place extra settings at their tables for these unseen guests. They would pile the plates with food and fill the cups with drinks. As the legend goes, the spirits could visit this realm until dawn's first light. But once the rays of the sun kissed the horizon, they had to return to their tombs for another year.

Jack-o'-Lanterns and Costumes

Today's trick-or-treating owes its roots to Samhain. For on that night, revelers spent the evening going from house to house to share a drink in celebration, and the same crowd would masquerade dressed in disguises as part of the merriment.

While they weren't knocking for candy, they were looking to keep themselves safe from spirits while celebrating all that's past, all that will be, and all those who have gone. So, although this holiday was a time to feast and celebrate, not all the spirits were welcome ones.

Travelers would hollow out a gourd, carve a scary face into it, and illuminate it with a candle to scare evil spirits away. Today, you find carved out pumpkins on porches to guide trick-or-treaters instead of guiding lost spirits home

Need to Know

Revelers didn't dress in masks or capes. They used animal furs and skins to disguise themselves while out that night. 

A Time for Divination

The Celts also believed the night of Samhain stood beyond the boundaries of normal time, making it the most fortuitous night of the year for peering into the future. Some of their methods were more like simple children's games or old wives' tales. However, other practitioners of the old faith held more elaborate rituals to find out what the coming year would bring. 

Dawn of the Christian Era

As with most pagan traditions and celebrations, the spreading Christian faith attempted to absorb Samhain and convert it into a new holiday that still carried aspects of the Feast of the Dead, but in a manner viewed as acceptable to the budding church. Divination was forbidden, since it was sternly viewed as meddling in the occult. But honoring the Christian dead was encouraged.

The evening was to be considered as merely a prelude to All Saints' Day on November 1st, a day where all holy or "hallowed" souls were remembered. Instead of frolicking, the people were encouraged to use it as a night of reflection and preparation for the holy day to follow, and this was the official beginning of All Hallows' Eve.

Modern Halloween

Although the Christian church tried to phase out Samhain celebrations and practices, the origin of All Hallows' Eve still echoes throughout the holiday now known as Halloween. For most people, the All Hallows' Eve celebration is completely secular, yet many of the ancient traditions of Samhain remain part of the evening. Trick-or-treaters still go door-to-door seeking treats while wearing masks or full costumes for the evening.

The jack-o'-lantern lives on in the form of carved pumpkins that light porches and yards. Of course, the spirits and Halloween monsters still heavily influence the festivities through ghost stories told in the dark. Yet, there are those who still celebrate the holiday in the original sense and use it to commune with nature and the spirits, as well as to seek knowledge of the future.

Pulling Back the Veil on All Hallows' Eve

The history of All Hallows' Eve is steeped in the melding of cultures and belief systems. The creation of this holiday served to unify and reinforce the bond between two distinct groups via the construction and marriage of a religious holiday. Today? There's more sugar than spirits in most homes. But for some, All Hallows' Eve is a chance to dabble in the shadows. 

The Haunted History of All Hallows' Eve