Most major holidays come with a lot of disinformation. This doesn’t mean books or websites are deliberately lying to you, it’s just that scholarship has changed a great deal over the last 100 years, and certain ideas that were popular a few decades ago are not out of favor academically. This is especially true when it comes to late October and the holidays of Samhain and Halloween.
While I most certainly believe that the Irish-Celtic holiday of Samhain has influenced the development of Halloween, Samhain’s influence is often overstated. We know very little about Samhain, and much of how we celebrate Halloween today is a more modern development, having evolved over the last 200 years.
The following list includes some of my favorite popular history of Halloween-Samhain-Season along with some nifty books full of ideas, crafts, and lore to make your holiday all it can be! Whatever you celebrate, and however you celebrate, I hope your holiday is terrifyingly grand!
Halloween From Pagan Ritual to Party Religion by Nicholas Rogers
Halloween by Nicholas Rogers was not the first academic inquiry into the history of Halloween, but it was one of the first books to be published by a scholarly press by an actual scholar for a popular audience. Much of the focus here is on the last 100 years or so, but as the book makes clear, that shouldn’t be too surprising since much of how we celebrate Halloween today has a more recent origin.
One thing that continually fascinates me about Halloween is that how we observe the holiday feels so old and grounded in tradition, and yet the modern American Halloween celebration with “trick or treat,” candy, costumes, and the like is less than a 100 years old. Rogers lays that history out in a way that makes sense, and will have you appreciating the few far older traditions that have slipped into the present day. This book was published in 2002, and sadly is already a little dated. The Halloween festivities he chronicles in San Francisco’s Castro district for instance ceased back in 2010.
Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal
Released the same year as Rogers’ Halloween, Death Makes a Holiday is another solid history of the Halloween season, tracing things back from Samhain into the present day. There are a few more flights of fancy in Skaal’s telling of Halloween history, but I’ve consulted this book dozens of times over the last 20 years and will gods willing consult it several dozen more times in the years to come. Less scholarly than the Rogers book, Skaal prose is breezy and makes for a great page turner on cool Autumn nights. (Death Makes a Holiday was updated in 2016 and reprinted as Halloween: The History of America’s Darkest Holiday.)
Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton
A bit more up to date than the above books, Trick or Treat is a down to earth read on the origins of many a Witch’s favorite holiday. Morton is also an engaging writer who will have you happily turning pages. The book is organized by ideas and is not linear, which can be a bit confusing in places.
America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories by Bruce David Forbes
This particular book evolved out of Forbes writing a short book just on Christmas, that was later expanded into this volume which also includes Halloween, in addition to Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Thanksgiving. If you want maximum bang for your holiday reading buck this is the book I recommend the most highly. It’s not as detailed as some of the stand alone volumes listed above, but it covers nearly all the pertinent history needed to have a thorough understanding of Halloween’s place in history.
Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton
Hutton’s one small chapter on Samhain sums up most of what we know about the ancient Celtic holiday of that name. All of the books on Halloween will mention Samhain for a couple of pages, but if you want a bit more depth this is the place to go. Hutton rounds up most of the major historical accounts of the holiday and lays them out, while sharing how ideas about Samhain have evolved over the last 100 years.
Llewellyn’s Little Book of Halloween by Mickie Mueller
Don’t read this one for the history, read this one for all the arts, crafts, and other fun activities included in its pages! The Little Book series by Llewellyn lives up to its name, these are short little books, but they all include a ton of great stuff. This volume has recipes, spells, craft projects, and instructions on how to read tea leaves and host a seance. At just twelve dollars, this book pays for itself.
Llewellyn’s Little Book of The Day of the Dead by Jaime Gironés
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this over the summer, and I consumed it all in just one sitting. I had read about Day of the Dead celebrations before, but Gironés expertly lays out the history of this holiday, and includes instructions for celebrating it respectfully in your own home. There are less activities here than in Mueller’s book, but that’s largely in part because Gironés has a whole lot more material to introduce to his audience. This book is not an invitation to cultural appropriation, it’s an entryway into understanding Day of the Dead celebrations.
The Witch’s Wheel of the Year: Rituals for Circles, Solitaries, and Covens by Jason Mankey
Yeah, yeah, this is my freaking book, but my rituals are pretty terrific, and there’s a nice summary of Samhain’s history here too. If you are looking for ritual ideas this Samhain there are far worse places to start. Best of all this book has Samhain rituals for solitaries, covens, and large groups (if your area is brave enough to host a large groups this year).
Seasonal Dance: How to Celebrate the Pagan Year by Janice Broch and Veronica MacLer
This is one of my absolute favorite ritual books. Broch and MacLer’s rituals are banging, and for many years this was the only book I could recommend in good conscious for people interested in seeing a great Samhain rite. In fact, I’ve used parts of the Samhain rituals found in this book in a lot of the things I’ve done publicly over the years. Sadly, this book is currently out of print, but can be found inexpensively online.
Ancient Ways by Pauline and Dan Campanelli
The history in this book is bad, but the ideas in this book are truly terrific. If you are looking for something to inspire your inner-Pagan this Samhain season this is a great place to start.
There are some Witch specific books dedicated just to Samhain that have come out over the last few years, but I can’t recommend what I haven’t read. 🙁