30. October 2020

Halloween: How the Eve of October 31st Became Haunted Halloween: How the Eve of October 31st Became Haunted

An interview with Gaelic scholar Dr. Michael Klevenhaus, alumnus of the University of Bonn

With the Halloween outlook poor this year—canceled for many—more people have started thinking about how this scary holiday got started in the first place. A former student of Celtic Studies at the University of Bonn, today Dr. Michael Klevenhaus is Director of the German Center for Gaelic Language & Culture, or “Acadamaidh na Gàidhlig sa' Ghearmailt” in Bonn. Thus University Communications sought out Dr. Klevenhaus for an interview to find out about the origins and history of the holiday.

Pumpkins also keep their distance.
Pumpkins also keep their distance. - Here in the botanical garden of the university. © Montage: Gregor Hübl / Universität Bonn / COLOURBOX.de
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Where and when did Halloween first start being observed?

Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain observing the symbolic end of the cycle of the year. So it was essentially a Celtic New Year festival originally celebrated in Gaelic-speaking Ireland and Scotland. It is a festival heralding the dark time of the year, the counterpoint of which is the Beltane festival heralding the time of light. Written ‘Beul Teine’ in Gaelic, the festival coincides with the German Walpurgis Night of April 30th as a marker of the beginning of the ‘summery’ period of the year. In Gaelic, Samhain is actually pronounced “Saw’in”.

Why do people set pumpkins outside their houses on Halloween?

Turnips were originally used—and still are in Scotland. People carve a scary face into the vegetable and place it outside the front door to scare off ghosts from the otherworld, so that they leave the living in peace and pass on by. Pumpkins are traditionally used in America and became popular due to being larger and easier to carve into a jack o’ lantern.

How did the practice get started of kids dressing up and going around saying “Trick or Treat”?

This custom had a similar premise originally, to disguise oneself to look so horrid that otherworld spirits would be repelled, being discouraged from taking the living back with them. Irish immigrants brought the custom to America, where it grew into a holiday on which children go from house to house soliciting candy with a mild threat.

Is there a connection between Halloween and All Saints’ Day?

All Saints’ doesn’t have anything to do with the Samhain of Celtic/Gaelic culture, although some think there is a connection because the two celebrations fall essentially on the same date, but there isn’t. The name Hallowe’en stems from All Hallows’ Eve, designating the night before All Saints’ Day. The legend of Jack O' Lantern helped conflate the two through—a wiley man who continuously tricked and outwitted the devil.


Acadamaidh na Gàidhlig sa' Ghearmailt
Deutsches Zentrum für Gälische Sprache & Kultur


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