Halloween is the evening before the Christian holy days of All Hallows’ Day (also known as All Saints’ or Hallowmas) on November 1, and All Souls’ Day on November 2. Halloween, the modern popular cultural holiday, is also called All Hallows’ Eve.
It is not hard to see how this three-day observance of Allhallowtide that was dedicated to remembering the dead was popularized into our modern Halloween. Hallows are saints, martyrs, and all the faithful departed and they are supposed to be remembered now. That is an idea found in almost all religions, though marked in different ways and on different dates.
Many Halloween traditions originated from Celtic harvest festivals which may have pagan roots. Many pagan practices, such as the Gaelic festival Samhain, were appropriated and Christianized as a way to bring pagans into the church.
Samhain is celebrated from sunset on October 31 until sunset on November 1st. That time was chosen because it was the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
In Ireland, it is known as Samhain and in Scotland as Samhuinn and both translate as “summer’s end.” In Wales, it is Calan Gaeaf meaning “calends of winter.” In Cornwall, it is Allantide.
It marks the end of the green season. It is also a time when bare boughs make it easier to hunt and see your prey.
It was a time to appease the shadowy powers with offerings. A sacrificial victim may have once embodied the corn spirit of harvest or with the beating of the grain (threshing). Slaying the corn spirit was in earlier times the slaying of a tree or a vegetation spirit embodied in a tree or in a human or animal victim. American Indians had their own end-of-harvest corn spirit beliefs. It is ironic and gruesome that a human victim may have once been regarded as a “king” much like the mock kings or queens chosen at winter festivals.
With the rise of Christianity, a slain human or animal sacrifice became regarded as wrong and even as an offering to evil powers. Effigies of the corn spirit or even some saints were made but not sacrificed as part of the festival.