Or, 5 great books on the history of Halloween
Halloween is just around the corner and the five books about Samhain I’ve reviewed here are great if you’d like to teach your children about the origins of Halloween, paganism and/or Celtic culture.
Not many adults are aware of the history behind the celebrations we associate with Halloween and I actually found it quite hard to find any books at all about Samhain for children. But I’m very interested in myths and legends generally and I love a challenge so I kept going and eventually found five fantastic books about the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. (I’ve also reviewed the 10 best board books about Halloween here.)
But first, some basics: what is Samhain?
What is Samhain?
Samhain is an ancient Celtic word which means “end of summer”.
The Celtic peoples were a collection of peoples first identified in Europe as far back as 1200 BCE. Though there were many groups spread across a large area in Europe, the Celts were identified by their use of Celtic languages and other similarities. The Celts spread to Ireland and Britain and it is with these countries that Celtic traditions and the Celtic language are mostly associated today.
The ancient Celts separated the year into two halves; the light half and the dark half – summer and winter. The festival of Samhain marks the transition from summer to winter, the end of the Celtic year. The Celts believed the new year began on the day which corresponds to 1 November on our calendar today, the date that was considered the beginning of the winter period. This was the day on which the herds were returned from pasture and land tenures were renewed. It was also believed to be a time when the barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds were at their most transparent.
The Celts believed that, during this time, the souls of those who had died returned to visit their homes while those who had died during the year were believed to journey to the otherworld. While visits from the souls of their dead were welcomed, it was also believed that evil spirits came out during Samhain. People set bonfires on hilltops from which they lit their hearth fires for the winter and also to frighten away evil spirits. They sometimes wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognised by these evil spirits.
The Halloween focus on ghosts, fear, tricks, evils spirits and dressing up comes from these Samhain beliefs and traditions.
Why share books about Samhain with children?
These days, I’m not particularly religious, though I was raised as a Catholic and attended Catholic schools, as did my children. I do, however, have a strong interest in the history of religion generally and in the origins and histories of specific religions.
In particular, I find the historical links between different religions fascinating and enjoy looking into the similarities between them, especially the similarities I see in the way they celebrate certain festivals and special days.
When it comes to Halloween, the celebrations and associations we see today have their roots both in the Catholic celebration of All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’ Eve and All Hallows’ Day) and in Samhain, the ancient Celtic celebration that marks the end of summer in the northern hemisphere.
As a primary school teacher here in Australia, I’ve observed that even quite young children are interested in the origins of celebrations like Halloween. They love discovering new things and enjoy making connections between what they already know and new information and they’re definitely capable of understanding the way celebrations and beliefs have changed over time.
So how do we go about explaining ideas like this to children?
I think sharing picture books about Samhain are a great way of helping children understand this ancient celebration while also exploring the concepts of myths, legends, different beliefs and the role of storytelling in history and culture. And if this sounds a bit complex, please don’t think you need to explicitly teach your children about these things. Reading the books together and following your child’s lead is the way to go.
Unfortunately, these books can be a bit hard to get hold of. Some are self-published and I’ve discovered that not many are available in libraries. If you get stuck, some of the books are available as read-alouds on YouTube.
So here is my list of 5 great books about Samhain for kids. They’re fantastic books to read around halloween and I hope you enjoy sharing them with your children.
5 Books about Samhain for Kids
1. Children’s Intro to Samhain: An Illustrated Guide
Recommended for ages: 5-8 years
2. Samhain with Grani Hulda
The Grani Hulda books are written with families who identify as Pagan in mind to help them explain different celebrations to their children. This book focuses on Samhain, when the Earth and its creatures are preparing for winter, and on Grani Hulda’s celebrations with her friend, a bat. Bats represent death and rebirth and are therefore a symbol of Samhain. With fun, bright pictures of animals and trees, this book is a great way to open up a discussion with young children about the links between Samhain and Halloween.
Recommended for ages: 2-7 years
3. Sam and the Samhain Scare
Sam and the Samhain Scare is written for families with an established Samhain celebration and for those wishing to explore Pagan holidays for the first time. But it’s also great for those who simply wish to begin a conversation with their children about the origins of Halloween. The book tells the story of Sam whose family and friends are celebrating Samhain. They are joined by the spirits of their ancestors, participate in some Samhain rituals and share a harvest feast. But Sam finds many of the rituals and associations of Samhain scary and grapples with his fears before eventually learning that Samhain isn’t scary at all. The story teaches children about the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain and kid-friendly ways to celebrate. It also helps teach children about emotional regulation and how to calm their bodies when they are feeling scared. The book features a section at the back which shows some of the Samhain rituals and even some Pagan spells, as well as information about the history of Samhain.
Recommended for ages: 3-8 years
4. Rupert’s Tales: The Wheel of the Year – Samhain, Yule, Imbolc and Ostara
This book explains the festivals of Samhain, Yule, Imbolc and Ostara to young children in an appealing and very sweet way, focusing on the Wheel of the Year, the annual cycle of seasonal festivals which mark the year’s chief solar events. The celebrations and rituals are seen through the eyes of a sweet little bunny and explained to him by a friendly fairy. With appealing illustrations and characters, this book does a great job of explaining the traditions and celebrations of Samhain to small humans.
Recommended for ages: 3-8 years
5. The Ancient Celtic Festivals and How We Celebrate Them Today
This is a non-fiction books for older children and it’s absolutely fascinating. It describes a range of Celtic festivals but I found the section about Samhain especially interesting. It discusses the fact that All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween, comes from the early Christian adaptation of the most important festival of the Celtic Year, Samhain, and that the Christian celebration involves praying for the souls of the dead and visiting their graves while Samhain involves honouring deceased ancestors. The similarities between these rituals and those associated with El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead, celebrated in Spanish-speaking countries) and the Roman festival of Pomona are also explained. Children will be fascinated to learn how Halloween customs designed to confuse or scare away evil spirits evolved from the ancient traditions of Samhain: candles put in rutabagas (root vegetables), the lighting of bonfires and pranksters dressed in costumes playing tricks on neighbours. This is an informative and engaging book which includes suggestions for simple activities children can do to mark the change of seasons.
Recommended for ages: 9-12 years
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these books about Samhain for kids. If you’re on Instagram, please do come and share your favourites and tag me @thebookbasketco so I can see!
* This blog post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I will earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). All the books I link to are quality texts I've read and enjoyed. In most cases I also use them in the classroom.
Over to you
Have you ever read any books about Samhain to your child?
Do you have a favourite children’s book about Samhain to share?
I’d love to hear what you think so drop me a line in the comments.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Felicity is a mum of three young adults and a primary school teacher in Sydney, Australia. Passionate about children's literacy and about the potential of books and reading for enriching young lives, she also creates and sells cute, clever book-ish gifts and gift baskets for little ones. Check out her Book Gift Baskets and Little Book Gifts.
I’m Felicity - a parent to three young humans and a primary school teacher who loves books.
I’m passionate about helping parents discover the joy of reading to their little ones and I love helping you discover quality picture books to share with the babies and small humans in your lives.