I’m not sure about the accuracy of a lot things that are claimed for Hallowe’en.
Firstly, Samhain is an Irish Gaelic festival, there’s not much at all to suggest that it was ever a particularly important festival throughout historical Celtic cultural areas and in Brythonic tradition it seems as though May Day was more important.
Furthermore, the links between Samhain and the dead etc. aren’t really evidenced in the Irish literature at all other than a possible connection with the Sidhe, who aren’t the dead as such, and, perhaps Crom Cruach. In fact, the links with the dead seem to have come far more from ancient Catholic traditions and notions of purgatory and praying for the spirits of the deceased. The idea of feeding the dead also seems to derive more from the Medieval Christian traditions surrounding “soul cakes”. These traditions of going a-souling have all but died out in most places but I believe that they may still occur in their traditional form in some parts of the North of England. Dressing up in disguise or costumes and carrying lanterns, accompanied by a carnivalesque atmosphere, were also part of the customs during the three days of Allhallowtide – so it’s not much of a leap to trick-or-treating and modern Hallowe’en celebrations.
If there are pagan roots to Hallowe’en, then they are more to be found in the religion of the pre-Christian Romans – Lemuria – and the ways that various cultures added their own customs and interpretations to Christian three-day festival, as similar customs can be found in other parts of Europe, parts of Europe that were not “Celtic” at all, notably Southern Italy.
I believe some burial mounds may be aligned on an Imbolc-Samhain axis, however, it’s highly problematic to use the word Celtic to describe the pre-Iron Age peoples of Britain and Ireland, perhaps Bronze Age, but not Neolithic. Of course, there’s evidence that the Neolithic and even pre-Neolithic peoples did contribute to our gene pool, but what they believed, their language(s), their customs and how much just might have been passed down are impossible to determine.
A major problem with Hallowe’en/Samhain is basically that so much conjecture and speculation has been passed off as historical fact and, consequently, confusion now abounds. The Protestant reformation was quick in seeking to eradicate much of the Medieval Christian culture that once flourished throughout Britain and Ireland and anything not in line with Protestant thinking was summarily denigrated or castigated as being “pagan”, “idolatrous” or “demonic” – despite the fact that a couple of generations before these had been “good” “Christian” festivals. The traditions lingered on in folk memory and custom and had their natural evolution to the present day.
A couple of citations:
“Halloween is probably the most misrepresented and misunderstood festival in the traditional calendar. The widespread notion that the day (or rather the night) is a pre-Christian pagan celebration is not historically correct, but is now so well-entrenched as to be immovable.”
Entry: Hallowe’en (31 October), p.230 in The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, Steve Roud, Penguin Books (ed. 2006)
It is commonly asserted that the feast was the pagan festival of the dead. In reality feasts to commemorate the dead, where they can be found in ancient Europe, were celebrated by both pagans and early Christians, between March and May, as part of a spring cleaning to close off grieving and go forth into the new summer. On the other hand, the medieval Catholic church did gradually institute a mighty festival of the dead at this time of year, designating 1 November as the feast of All Saints or All Hallows, initially in honour of the early Christian martyrs, and 2 November as All Souls, on which people could pray for their dead friends and relatives. This was associated with the new doctrine of purgatory, by which most people went not straight to hell or heaven but a place of suffering between, where their sins were purged to fit them for heaven. It was also believed that the prayers of the living could lighten and shorten their trials, as could the intercession of saints (which is why it was good to have all of those at hand). The two new Christian feasts were, however, only developed between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, and started in Germanic not Celtic lands.
Ronald Hutton: Halloween? It’s more than trick or treat, The Guardian, Tue 28 Oct 2014.
Just for the record, I really like Hallowe’en, it’s always been one of my favourite festivals, so it really doesn’t bother me at all whether its roots be in Medieval Catholicism or not, however, I really don’t believe that my Celtic, “druid”, ancestors would’ve recognised what we call Hallowe’en at all.
PS. Who would be so downright mean as to take sweets back from a Hallowe’en trick-or-treat bag?