All Hallows’ Eve — A Halloween History
Halloween is my favorite time of the year. But the origins of this equal parts eerie and fun holiday date back centuries through different cultures. The amalgamation of cultural traditions has resulted in the modern-day celebration of Halloween.
A lot of what we associate with Halloween comes from Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival. The Celts lived around 2,000 years ago in what is now modern-day Ireland, the United Kingdom, and parts of Northern France. This festival came about the night before the Celtic new year. The Celtic new year was celebrated on November 1 and signified the end of summer and the harvest season, as well as the beginning of the winter. Winter is historically a time of year that has been associated with death.
The night before the new year, October 31, was viewed by the Celts as a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead was blurred. This is when the Celts celebrated Samhain, a time when they believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to the world of the living.
The Celts believed that the presence of ghosts not only caused mischief and damaged crops, but also made it easier for the Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions for the future. Because the world at the time for the Celtic people could be very volatile, they relied on these predictions or prophecies as a source of comfort to get them through the harsh winter.
To celebrate Samhain, the Druids would build large sacred bonfires, around which the Celts would gather to burn crops and animals, their sacrifices to the deities they worshipped. The Celts would also don costumes, traditionally made out of animal skins and heads, and try to read each other’s fortunes.
By 43 A.D. the majority of the Celtic land had been conquered by the Roman Empire, where they ruled for around 400 years. During this time, two Roman festivals ended up combining with the celebration of Samhain. The first of these festivals was known as Feralia, a day observed in late October where the Romans would commemorate the passing of their dead. The second was a festival honoring Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona is symbolized by the apple, which most likely explains where the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples came about.
During the eighth century, November 1 was designated by Pope Gregory III as a day to honor all saints. Eventually, All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows, began to incorporate traditions taken from the festival of Samhain. It was at this time that the evening before All Hallows began to be known as All Hallows’ Eve, and finally, Halloween.
"During the second half of the 19th century, America saw a huge influx of new immigrants ... These new immigrants helped to spread the celebration of Halloween countrywide. Today’s trick-or-treating tradition soon emerged as Americans began to borrow from European customs and started to don costumes and go house to house asking for money or food."
During the ninth century, Christian influence was spreading into the Celtic territories, and it began to blend with and sometimes replace long-held Celtic traditions. In 1000 A.D., November 2 was designated All Souls’ Day by the church, a time set aside to honor the dead. Today, it is believed that this was an attempt by the church to supplant the Celtic festival of the dead with a similar holiday sanctioned by the church. The celebration of All Souls’ Day was akin to Samhain, and included large bonfires, parades, and the wearing of costumes like those of saints, devils, and angels.
The history behind dressing in costume to celebrate Halloween comes from both Celtic and European traditions. Centuries ago, winter was a scary and uncertain time. Food supplies ran low and the days became shorter and darker. Anyone afraid of the dark was filled with a sense of dread when leaving home.
Adding to this sense of dread was the fact that on October 31, it was believed that spirits were able to wander the earthly plane. As a result, people were afraid that they would encounter ghosts if they left the safety of their homes. In order to avoid being recognized by these spirits, people would put on masks if they left their homes after dark in order to trick the ghosts into thinking that they were spirits themselves. Additionally, on Halloween, to keep these spirits away from their homes, people would try to appease them and prevent them from attempting entry by placing bowls of food outside their houses.
The current American tradition of trick-or-treating appears to be at least partially rooted in early British All Souls’ Day parades. At these parades, poor citizens would beg for food. Families would give the poor pastries known as “soul cakes” in exchange for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The church encouraged the giving of soul cakes as their way to replace the ancient practice of leaving wine and food for wandering ghosts. This practice became known as “going a-souling” and soon gained popularity among children, who would go from home to home in their neighborhoods and be gifted with food, money, and ale.
When Halloween first made its way to America, the celebration was limited. This is because the Protestant belief systems held in colonial New England were quite constricting. However, Halloween became more commonly celebrated in territories like Maryland as well as some of the Southern colonies. Eventually, traditions and beliefs from different European ethnic groups in America and from Native Americans combined, resulting in the emergence of a new American version of Halloween.
The first American Halloween celebrations featured public events known as “play parties” that were held in celebration of the harvest. During these play parties, neighbors would read each other’s fortunes, tell stories of the dead, sing, and dance. Meanwhile, colonial Halloween celebrations included telling ghost stories as well as all kinds of mischief-making. Around the mid-19th century, autumn festivities became popular in America, and were held annually. However, Halloween had not yet become as popular nationally.
During the second half of the 19th century, America saw a huge influx of new immigrants, including millions of Irish people, as a result of the Irish potato famine. These new immigrants helped to spread the celebration of Halloween countrywide. Today’s trick-or-treating tradition soon emerged as Americans began to borrow from European customs and started to don costumes and go house to house asking for money or food.
By the end of the 1800s, an American push to make Halloween into a holiday centered more around community and neighborhood gatherings and away from pranks, witchcraft, and ghosts gained popularity. This led to the popularization of Halloween parties for children and adults alike by the turn of the century as the most common way to celebrate the holiday. These parties featured games, festive costumes, and the traditional foods of the season.
At the same time, newspapers and community leaders were encouraging parents to eliminate all frightening or grotesque elements from their Halloween celebrations. Due to this encouragement, the religious as well as superstitious overtones surrounding Halloween were lost toward the start of the 20th century.
Halloween had cemented itself as a community-centered secular holiday by the 1920s and 1930s. The celebration consisted of parades and townwide Halloween parties. However, during this time, vandalism began to occur during Halloween celebrations in many communities, a problem that plagues neighborhoods to this day.
Around the 1950s, Halloween evolved once again. It became a celebration mainly directed at children, adolescents, and other young people. The baby boom of the 1950s resulted in a large number of young children and caused Halloween parties to be moved from town centers into classrooms and homes.
Between 1920 and 1950, the old tradition of trick-or-treating also saw a resurgence. This was due to the fact that it was a pretty inexpensive way for a community to celebrate Halloween. Plus, it had the added benefit of discouraging vandalism and other tricks from youths, as families would be providing them with small treats.
Nowadays, Halloween is the second biggest commercial holiday in the United States, after Christmas. It is estimated that Americans spend around $6 billion each year on Halloween. But many are completely unaware of the reasons why we started celebrating this spooktacular holiday or the history of their favorite traditions. Hopefully, knowing the roots of your favorite Halloween festivities will help make your celebrations even more fun this year.