Despite the festivities surrounding modern Halloween, the holiday’s history is less about fun and more about religious superstitions.
Halloween originated about 2,000 years ago with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, or end of summer, which was held on November 1 and was considered the beginning of the new year. The end of summer meant the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, a time when many would die. The Celts believed that, at this time of year, the dead could pass into the realm of the living. To protect themselves from evil spirits, the people would dress up as hideous, evil creatures in the hopes of scaring the spirits away. The Celts also built large bonfires, or “bone fires,” where they burned crops and animals as a sacrifice to their gods.
After the Roman Empire conquered the Celts, their own celebrations were added. Feralia was normally celebrated in late October in honor of the dead. The Romans also held a celebration to honor Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was the apple, which may be where the activity of bobbing for apples originated.
Many years later, the Catholic Church started to incorporate pagan celebrations into their own teachings to encourage new converts. Catholic leaders declared November 1 to be All Saints Day, or All Hallows, in honor of the dead. It was celebrated in much the same way as Samhain was celebrated, with bonfires and costumes. The night before this celebration was the traditional Samhain celebration, which later became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.
Many of the common traditions today came from practices in ancient time. Trick-or-treating came from a time when the poor would go door-to-door begging for food and money in exchange for prayers for the dead. The scary costumes came from the Celts dressing up as evil spirits for protection against spirits that would try to hurt them. People would leave food and wine out to appease the spirits roaming the earth and hopefully keep them from entering their homes. Jack o’ lanterns were carved from potatoes, turnips, and eventually, pumpkins, to scare away evil spirits that may be lurking around.
All of these traditions were brought to the US when immigrants moved here, and as the traditions blended together, they evolved into the traditions we have today to celebrate Halloween.
Reviewed by Dr. Kristie Rivers, September 2020
- Halloween started as an ancient Celtic celebration called Samhain, or end of summer.
- Costumes were worn to trick evil spirits into thinking people were other evil spirits.
- Later, the Roman Empire added their own traditions, as did the Catholic Church.
- As immigrants from other countries came to the US, they blended their traditions until they became the traditions we practice today.