Halloween occupies a strange place in the realm of holidays. While some people spend weeks planning and creating their elaborate costumes, others barely acknowledge it at all. Perhaps it is because, unlike most holidays on the calendar, Halloween is all about paying tribute to the spooky, scary, and downright deadly. Where did this holiday come from and how could a night of celebration, so different from all others, become one of the most widely celebrated holidays around the world? Well, look no further, because we have the history of Halloween.
Ancient History of Halloween
Halloween has a surprisingly ancient history. Thought to have originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, this celebration was marked by the lighting of large, sacred bonfires and the wearing of costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. The Celts would burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities, while the costumes they would wear would typically consist of animal heads and skins. When the celebration was over, each family would re-light the fires in their homes using fire from the sacred bonfire, with the hope that it would bring protection during the coming winter.
After the Roman Empire conquered the majority of Celtic lands, there was, over time, a gradual combining of Roman festivals with Celtic traditions. This was the case with Samhain, which was combined with two Roman festivals: Feralia, and the day to honour the goddess Pomona. Feralia fell on a day in late October, and was intended as a commemorative festival for the dead. Pomona, on the other hand, was the goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was the apple, which some link to the contemporary tradition of bobbing for apples!
In 1000 A.D. , November 2 was made All Souls’ Day, which became a day to honour to souls of the dead. Incorporating some of the traditions of Samhain, All Souls’ Day was also celebrated with bonfires, parades, and dressing in costume as saints, angels, and devils. The All Saints Day celebration on November 1 was also call All-hallows, and the evening before— the traditional night of Samhain— was known as All Hallows’ Eve.
Though we might recognize familiar traditions in the celebrations of Samhain and All Saints’ Day, the way Halloween is celebrated in North America today is quite different. When Europeans began to settle in North America, the beliefs and customs of Americans and European ethnic groups began to mesh. The first celebrations of Halloween in colonial North America included “play parties,” which were public festivals that celebrated the harvest. Neighbours would share stories of the dead, dance, sing, and tell each other’s fortunes. It was during this time that the telling of ghost stories began to be a Halloween tradition!
In the early 19th century, Halloween was celebrated, but not widely. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century when North America was flooded with immigrants that Halloween became widely celebrated. In particular, the arrival of millions of Irish fleeing the potato famine in 1846 helped popularize Halloween, as it was more commonly celebrated in Ireland, the home of the Celts. During this same time, however, there was also a general shift towards making Halloween a holiday about community rather than about ghosts and magic.
By the early 20th century, Halloween parties were usually for both adults and children, with a focus on games, food, and festive costumes. Community leaders encouraged parents to move away from the frightening aspects of Halloween, which eventually resulted in the holiday’s lack of religious and spiritual aspects in its public celebration.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a more or less secular, community-based holiday, leaving behind its religious rituals and traditions. Parades and parties were the main way to celebrate, and the “trick-or-treat” tradition developed in full force. This was due again to European immigrants who brought the practice of ‘mumming’ to North America. ‘Mumming’ was the practice of going door-to-door performing choreographed dances or songs in exchange for treats. This is how halloween became to be all about candies and costumes, as it still remains today.
Samhain has never truly gone away however, as Wiccans across the world still celebrate the 31st of October as their New Year. There are an estimated 400,000+ Wiccans in America alone, making it a fairly significant religious practice.
Every year, Americans spend roughly $6 billion dollars on Halloween! This makes it the country’s second largest commercial holiday, falling short only of Christmas. Still, even though it has changed greatly since the days of Samhain, you can see how the ancient traditions have taken new shape, keeping this holiday’s spooky past ever present!