Halloween dates back 2,000 years to now present-day Ireland, northern France, and the United Kingdom, where the Celts celebrated the ancient festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Held on their new year, November 1, the festival marked the end of harvest and summer and the start of cold winter, which was often associated with death. The Celts believed the worlds between the dead and living crossed over and ghosts returned to the earth on October 31, damaging crops and causing distress. During this time, the Druids built bonfires, and people gathered wearing costumes of animal skins to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the gods.
By 43 A.D. most of the Celtic territory had been conquered by the Roman Empire, and during their 400 years of ruling, they combined two Roman festivals with that of Samhain. Feralia was celebrated in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead, and the second festival honored the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. Her symbol is the apple, which probably led to the tradition of bobbing for apples.
On May 13, 609 A.D., the Roman Pantheon was dedicated to Christian martyrs and the feast of All Martyrs Day was established. Later in the 730s, Pope Gregory III expanded the festival to include saints and moved the feast to November 1. In 1000 A.D., the church created All Souls’ Day to honor the dead which was held on November 2, and also included bonfires and dressing in costumes. All Saints Day was also called All-hallows, and the night before was known as All-hallows Eve, resulting in Halloween.
When Halloween came to America, the earlier celebrations included sharing stories of the dead, reading each other’s fortunes, making mischief, and telling ghost stories. In the second half of the 19th century, Americans started dressing up asking for food or money, which turned into today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. At the turn of the century the holiday shifted towards get-togethers, parties became common, and the Halloween lost its religious overtones by the start of the 20th century.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween became a secular, community-centered holiday with parades and parties, but unfortunately vandalism also started. By the 1950s, vandalism was limited and Halloween was targeted to younger children who continued going trick-or-treating in the neighborhood.
Dressing up in costumes and leaving candy out for trick-or-treaters both have Celtic and European roots. Long ago it was thought that if people left home, ghosts would confront them, so people wore masks to avoid recognition, and left bowls of food outside the house to appease ghosts and stop them from entering.
Today, Halloween is America’s second largest commercial holiday with an estimated $6 billion spent annually.
Typical Halloween Symbols:
- Bats: commonly seen at bonfires due to the attraction of insects
- Black cats: believed to be a facilitator to other realms/worlds
- Jack-O-Lanterns: used to provide light for those trick-or-treaters
- Spiders: much like black cats, were thought to have supernatural abilities
- Witches: since Halloween marks the time when the wall between living and dead is lowest and witches are devoted to the supernatural, it’s only fitting they’re a traditional symbol of Halloween