First "Halloween" Costumes: Skins, Skulls, and Skirts?

October 30, 2008

A far cry from the faux Palins, pirates, and princesses of today, costumes during Halloween's precursor centuries ago included animal skins and heads, drag getups, and even mechanical horse heads, historians say.

Records of the precursor to Halloween—the Celtic new year celebration of Saimhain (SAH-win)—are extremely threadbare, said Ken Nilsen, professor of Celtic studies at Canada's St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

(See photos of modern Celtic revelers in costume.)

"We don't have actual records telling us what it was like in ancient times, so our knowledge is based principally on folk customs that continued until recent centuries," Nilsen told National Geographic News.

Samhain, however, is known to date back at least 2,000 years, based on analysis of a Celtic bronze calendar discovered in the 1890s in Coligny, France, in what was then called Gaul.

The festival marked the end of the Celtic year, when the harvest was gathered and animals were rounded up.

It's said the hides of cattle and other livestock slaughtered at this time were ritually worn during festivities that likely hark back to even earlier pagan beliefs.

Animal Spirits

Ancient Roman writers recorded that tribes in what is now Germany and France held riotous ceremonies where they donned the heads and skins of wild mammals to connect with animal spirits.

The custom of wearing animal hides at bonfire-lighted Celtic feast ceremonies survived until recent times, Nilsen notes.

"This was certainly done at Martinmas [the November 11 Christian feast of St. Martin] in Ireland and Scotland, which, in the old calendar, would be Halloween," he said.

"There might have been an excess of livestock, so it would make sense to slaughter an animal," Nilsen said.

Continued on Next Page >>




NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.