Halloween is an interesting and much celebrated holiday, given that 25% of all the candy sold in the U.S. is sold on or for Halloween! What you may not know is that the traditions from which Halloween originates are more than 2000 years old.
Ancient Celtic Tradition
The earliest origins of Halloween date back to the Celtic festival called Samhain, which took place on October 31st. The Celtic people lived in an area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Northern France. The ancient Celtic new year took place on November 1st, and this date also marked the beginning of a long winter which many did not survive. It was believed that the night before the new year, October 31st, was a blurring of the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. The ancient Celts celebrated Samhain by wearing costumes, usually made of animal hides. The costumes were used both as a protection from malignant spirits, and to enhance prophetic powers. It was thought that this blurring of boundaries also allowed certain Celts to foretell the future, a talent that was much valued with winter looming.
The Roman Empire had already been warring with the Celts for several hundred years, but by 43 A.D. the Romans had prevailed. At this point the traditions of Samhain were combined with two Roman holidays, Feralia and a holy day for Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. Feralia was a traditional holiday in late October during which the Romans commemorated the beloved dead. The apple was a symbol of Ponoma, and it may be where the modern Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples originates.
Halloween continued to evolve. Pope Gregory III established All Saints Day as an expansion of All Martyrs Day, originally created by Pope Boniface IV on May 13, 609 A.D. Pope Gregory also moved the observance of this holiday from the original May 13 date to November 1. In 1000 A.D., the church created All Soul’s Day on November 2. Like Samhain and Feralia, All Soul’s Day was a holiday to honor the dead. Today it is widely believed that the church created All Soul’s Day in an attempt to replace the traditional Celtic day of Samhain with a Christian version. Celebration of All Soul’s Day was conducted similarly to Samhain, complete with bonfires and elaborate costumes of angels, devils, and saints. These celebrations extended to the night before these two holidays, the night of October 31st, eventually becoming the Halloween we know today.
The earliest origins of the word “Halloween” come from the Middle English “Alholowmesse”, meaning All Saints Day. This word evolved to All-hallows or All-hallowmas, both of which referred to the All Saints Day celebrations. Through further etymological evolution, these words eventually combined to make All-Hallows Eve and the timing shifted to the night of October 31st. Between then and modern times All-Hallows Eve became the Halloween term we use today.