Halloween was not always the holiday that it is now. Pre-Christian Celtic religions celebrated Halloween as Samhain. Samhain is the celebration of the “Last Harvest” also referred to as “Summer’s End”, the celebration of the dead (similar to our national holiday “Memorial Day”), and a time to celebrate the future. The Celts had 3 harvests: Aug 1, Lammas, was the first harvest when the first fruits were offered to the Gods in thanks. The Fall Equinox was the "true harvest". This was when the bulk of the crops would be brought in. Samhain was the final harvest of the year. Halloween is one of the four High Holidays, or Greater Sabbats, or cross-quarter days. Because it is the most important holiday of the year, it is sometimes called 'THE Great Sabbat.'
Samhain marked the Celtic New Year, which begins with the onset of the dark time of the year. It is also the night when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thin enough for the two worlds to combine. During Samhain the souls of the dead cross through the veil to the world of the living so “The Feast of the Dead” ("Fleadh nan Mairbh") is laid out by many to welcome these otherworldly visitors and gain their favor for the coming year. Many folks leave milk and cakes outside their door on Samhain Eve or set a place at their table for their ancestors who may want to join in the celebrations with their kin and family. Since Samhain was the New Year, it was the time that the magic used for divinations was the strongest.
There were many customs associated with Samhain; the Celtics had the custom of wearing of masks and costumes to confuse the wandering dead into imagining that the wearers were of their number and not living mortals. The Jack o’ Lantern came from the carved gourds that they used to light the way for the spirits of the dead and also used for protection from harmful spirits. Trick or Treating also came from the tradition of leaving out milk and cakes or other foods associated with the harvest for the spirits of the dead so they would not play any ‘tricks’ on those that lived within. Organizations like the Boy Scouts helped to organize the way Trick or Treating is done today.
In the 700’s, the Roman Catholic Church named November 1 as All Saints’ Day. The old customs and festivals were added to the Christian feast day and combined into a Halloween celebration. Samhain was then named All Hallows Eve (meaning hallowed evening). . Over the years, the name changed from Samhain to All Hallows Eve to Halloween. Other names that were also used were Hallowtide, Hallowmass, Hallows, The Day of the Dead, and All Soul's Night.
The spread of Christianity did not banish the old customs; Samhain is celebrated today in much the same manner as was in the pre-Christian days. Candles are still lit for the dead. Candles lit in Jack ‘O Lanterns, children and adults in costume, and giving of treats.
Yule, the shortest day of the year; also known as winter solstice and midwinter. It is a time when the waxing sun (the Oak king) overcomes the waning sun (the Holly king). It is the rebirth of the Oak King, who is also referred to as the Sun King. The Holly King and the Oak King are part of Celtic mythology, and they represent the two sides of the Horned God. They battle twice a year, once at Yule and once at Midsummer (Litha) to see who would rule over the next half of the year. At Yule, the Oak King wins and at Litha, the Holly King is victorious. In other words, the Oak King rules over the half of the year in which the day gets longer, and the Holly King over the half in which the day gets shorter. Christmas celebrations came from this Sabbat. The Christmas tree (also known as the Yule tree), holly, elves, Yule log, mistletoe, caroling, and the giving of gifts.
Mistletoe was gathered by the Celtic Druids because they believed it to be a bringer of peace. There are also fertility aspects to the mistletoe. The tradition of kissing comes from a Norse tale about the goddess Frigga. Holly was hung from doors and windows for protection to capture evil spirits before they could enter the dwelling. The Christmas tree, like many Christmas customs, originated in the ancient Roman New Year festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was celebrated much the same as Christmas today. Home decoration was emphasized, and the decorations were the evergreen trees sacred to the sun- pine, holly, etc
The Yule log, a symbol of the oak king, means the death of darkness and the bringing of light. In accordance to tradition, the log must either have been harvested from the householder's land, or given as a gift... it must never have been bought. Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set ablaze be a piece of last years log, (held onto for just this purpose). The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days after before being ceremonially put out. Ash is the traditional wood of the Yule log.
Santa Claus is one of the few traditions of Christmas that came from the Christian church, but the giving of gifts had already been established in many Pagan religions. He is based on Saint Nicholas. Candy Canes were also bought into tradition after the rise of Christianity.
Beltane, also known as Beltain, Bealtain, or May Day, was for the ancient Celts the day that marked the beginning of summer. Beltane is a cross-quarter day, marking the midpoint in the Sun's progress between the vernal equinox and summer solstice. Beltane is the second principal Celtic festival (the other being Samhain).
Beltane marks the union of the God and Goddess, their joining to bring about fruitation of the Earth. Great bonfires would mark a time of purification and transition, heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by Otherworldly spirits, such as the Sídhe (The Fae). Like Samhain, the veil between the worlds have thinned. It is said that the Queen of the Faeries rides out on her white horse. Roving about on Beltane eve She will try to entice people away to the Faerieland. Legend has it that if you sit beneath a tree on Beltane night, you may see the Faerie Queen or hear the sound of Her horse's bells as She rides through the night. Legend says if you hide your face, She will pass you by, but if you look at Her, She may choose you.
On Beltane eve the Celts would build two large fires, Bel Fires, lit from the nine sacred woods. In ancient Ireland the main Bealtaine fire was held on the central hill of Uisneach 'the navel of Ireland', the ritual centre of the country, which is located in what is now County Westmeath. The Bel fire is a sacred fire with healing and purifying powers. The fires further celebrate the return of life, fruitfulness to the earth and the burning away of winter. Household fires would be extinguished and re-lit with fresh fire from the Bel Fires.
Celebration includes frolicking throughout the countryside, maypole dancing, leaping over fires to ensure fertility, circling the fire three times (sun-wise) for good luck in the coming year, athletic tournaments feasting, music, drinking, children collecting the May: gathering flowers. Flowers, flower wreaths and garlands are typical decorations for this holiday, as well as ribbons and streamers. Flowers are a crucial symbol of Beltane, they signal the victory of Summer over Winter and the blossoming of sensuality in all of nature and the bounty it will bring. It is customary that trial unions, for a year and a day, occur at this time. The trial marriages (engagements) typically occurred between a couple before deciding to take a further step into a legally binding union.
The central color of Beltane is green. Green is the color of growth, abundance, plentiful harvest, abundant crops, fertility, and luck. White is another color that is customary; white brings the energies of cleansing, peace, spirituality, and the power to dispel negativity. Another color is red that brings along the qualities of energy, strength, sex, vibrancy, quickening, health, consummation and retention. Sun energy, life force and happiness are brought to Beltane by the color yellow.