A Brief History of Halloween

Halloween is celebrated across the U.S. on October 31. Children dress up in fancy costumes of witches, wizards, and ghosts, knocking door to door, asking adults to either give them yummy treats or face some mischievous pranks. (Image:  Steven Depolo via  flickr  CC BY 2.0 )
Halloween is celebrated across the U.S. on October 31. Children dress up in fancy costumes of witches, wizards, and ghosts, knocking door to door, asking adults to either give them yummy treats or face some mischievous pranks. (Image: Steven Depolo via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Halloween is celebrated across the U.S. on October 31. Children dress up in fancy costumes of witches, wizards, and ghosts, knocking door to door, asking adults to either give them yummy treats or face some mischievous pranks. But despite being a very popular “secular” festival, few people know that Halloween has deep roots in ancient Celtic traditions.

The origin

The Celts were an ancient cultural group that lived about 2,000 years ago in Ireland, the UK, and parts of Europe. Their New Year fell on November 1, marking the end of summer and the start of winter. It was believed that on the night prior, October 31, the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead would blur. Celts used to celebrate this last day of October as Samhain.

To protect themselves from the spirits that would cross over to this world, Celts used to light up special bonfires that were used to mimic the sun. The fire was deemed to have unique protective powers and the priests would conduct rituals during the night. The Celts also believed that the souls of their ancestors would visit them during the event. Hence, they used to prepare a place at the feasting table to welcome such spirits home.

It was believed that on the night prior, October 31, the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead would blur. Celts used to celebrate this last day of October as Samhain. (Image: Avia Venefica via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Christian influence

As Europe started becoming Christian, it began influencing the festival of Samhain. When missionaries first sought to ban the festival from being practiced, they encountered great resistance from the natives. The Vatican decided that it would do well with their missionary efforts by Christianizing Samhain rather than trying to ban it altogether.

“In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: If a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship,” Ancient Origins quotes Jack Santino from the book The History of Halloween or Samhain.

When the Catholic Church began observing All Saints Day on November 1, it was also widely known as All-hallows. And the night before All-hallows was the traditional Samhain festival, which was called All-hallows Eve. This later came to be known as Halloween.

American popularization

In America, Halloween was initially limited to a few regions and was not a popular festival. However, all that changed in the second half of the 19th century with the massive influx of millions of Irish people fleeing the infamous Potato Famine back home. With the arrival of the Irish, Halloween slowly started gaining popularity.

In America, Halloween was initially limited to a few regions and was not a popular festival. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

In America, Halloween was initially limited to a few regions and was not a popular festival. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Children began dressing up in costumes and went from house to house asking for money or food. The practice eventually morphed into the “trick-or-treat” tradition we know now. By the beginning of the 20th century, Halloween had lost its religious overtones and focused on developing strong inter-community bonds.

Today, Halloween is one of the biggest celebrations in U.S., second only to Christmas in popularity. In 2017, Americans spent about US$9 billion for the festival, a big chunk of which went into purchasing candies, décor, and costumes. Moreover, Halloween is now celebrated all across the world, even in communist China.  

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