A History of Halloween

A History of Halloween



Pumpkins, ghosts, and goblins come out to haunt the season this time of year. Even if they are just three-foot children dressed in costumes sending a cute fright to all they encounter. Halloween is a time for trickery, fall leaves. With a crisp chill in the air trick-or-treaters, scurry from house to house to collect a bounty of candy. However, this is not how Halloween started.

The Ancient Origins of Halloween

The now festive holiday originated from an ancient pagan Celtic Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-in), and the celebration was Christianized as Halloween. Some Christians are said to have abstained from meat during this time. As per tradition,  they ate certain foods on All Hallows’ Eve like apples, pancakes, soul cakes, and potatoes.

Activities included carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns. People also lit a large bonfire to burn crops and sacrifices animals to Celtic deities. Also, they wore costumes made of animal heads and skins and tried to tell one another’s fortunes.

The holiday was the beginning of the three-day observance of Allhallowtide. The Celts lived 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Northern France.

The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1, which marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter. The darker half of the year and cold times are usually associated with death. Their belief was that the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead became liminal on the night before the new year. This makes it possible for the spirit world to infiltrated the living one. Meaning that the spirit fairies known as Aos Si (pronounced ees Shee), was able to cross over into our world easier.

HalloweenThe celebration of Samhain on October 31, was to help ward off the ghosts and keep them from causing mischief among the living and damaging their crops. Furthermore, the Celtics believed that on Halloween, or as it was known then, All Hallows’ Eve, the spirit’s presence made it easier for Celtic priests and Druids to predict the future.

The Roman Empire conquered most of the Celtic territory by 43 A.D. The Romans ruled over the Celtic lands for four hundred years. In that time, the traditional Samhain celebration was combined with two festivals of the Roman origin. One celebration is Floralia, a day in late October, when the Roman people paid homage to the passing of their dead. The other Roman festival was to honor Pomona the goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol is the apple which also traversed into the Samhain celebration. It is said that this may be the reason why bobbing for apples is practiced on Halloween today.

Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome on May 13, 609 A.D. He did so to honor all Christian martyrs. The Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was then established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III, who reigned between 731 and 741 A.D., extended the festival to include all saints and all martyrs. He also moved it to include the period between May 13 to November 1.

In the 9th century, Christianity spread to Celtic lands and gradually blended with older Celtic rites. In 1,000 A.D., the church made November 2 All Soul’s Day. This day was to honor the dead. The celebration is similar to Samhain and was called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, a Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saint’s Day.

Halloween Coming to America

Because of the colonial New England’s extremely rigid Protestant beliefs they did not celebrate Halloween. However, in Maryland and the southern colonies, it was a common celebration. Furthermore, today’s costumes are thought to be influenced by Christain dogma and practices.

In the 16th-Century festivities in Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Scottland consisted of mumming and guising. This practice involved going house-to-house, like modern day trick-or-treating, in costumes reciting verses or songs or verses in exchange for food. They were known to impersonate Aos Si or soul of the dead because they believed the disguises protected them.

Beliefs and customs from different European ethnic groups and the American Indians blended to form a distinctly American version of Halloween. Public events called play parties are known to be one the first celebrations. This event was held for the harvest, and the community would share their stories of the dead, sing, dance and tell each other’s fortunes.

In mid 19th-Century annual autumn festivities were common. However, Halloween was not celebrated everywhere in the country quite yet. However, in the second half of the 19th-Century immigrants, which included the Irish, helped to make the holiday popular.

Americans took the traditions from both the Irish and the English and began to dress up Halloweenin costumes and go from house to house asking for money or food. This tradition eventually became today’s trick-or-treating.

In the late 1800s, Americans molded Halloween into a holiday centered around community and get together’s for the neighborhood. The holiday no longer was centered around witchcraft and pranks. The turn of the century brought Halloween parties with games, food, and festive costumes.

However, newspapers and community leaders encouraged parents to take the frightening and grotesque things out of Halloween celebrations. This effort resulted in the loss of the holiday’s superstitious and religious overtones at the beginning of the 20th-Century.

The 1920-30s brought Halloween festivities like parades and large town parties. Unfortunately, vandalism sprouted up plaguing the holiday. However, by the 1950s, community leaders put a stop to most of the destructive pranks. Halloween also became directed more towards children during this time.

Today Americans spend around $6 billion on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday.

Halloween Superstitions

This time of year has always been filled with pranks, treats, ghosts, magic, and superstition. In the beginning, the Celtic end of summer festival made them feel close to their deceased dead friends and relatives. So, what better way to for them to show their affection for their deceased loved one than to set a place for them at the dinner table? Celtics also left them treats on their doorstep and lit candles on the side of the road to help their loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.

Many rituals during Halloween focused on the future rather than the past. An abundance of them centered around helping young women find their future husbands. Reassuring them that by next Halloween they would be married.

HalloweenIn Ireland during the 18th-Century, a person known as a match-making cook, would hide a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night. She did this in the hope that the diner who found it would find true love.

Today’s Halloween ghosts are scarier than the Celtics spirits. Modern ghosts are more fearsome and malevolent. Furthermore, costumes and superstitions are also scarier. People of modern days avoid crossing the path of the black cat, for fear it will bring them bad luck. This superstition’s root come from the Middle Ages because people in that age believed witches turned themselves into black cats to avoid detection.

Ladders are also a superstition in today’s modern world. This superstition is believed to have come from the Egyptians and their belief that the pyramids were sacred. Another belief is that a ladder leaning against a building is generally unsafe. Other Halloween superstitions include breaking mirrors, spilling salt, and stepping on cracks in the road and sidewalk.

Opinion News by Tracy Blake
Edited by Cathy Milne


History.com: History of Halloween
Halloween History: Halloween History
Halloween Web: Halloween History & Origin

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