I’m sure many are familiar with the holiday Halloween. Every year on October 31st, you can see people dressed up in costumes, going trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, having festive gatherings, etc., but did you ever wonder where this fun fall tradition came from?
Surprisingly, the origins of Halloween go all the way back to 2,000 years ago, to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts lived in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, and their New Year was celebrated on November 1st. It marked the end of summer and the harvest and the start of winter, which went almost hand-in-hand with human death. The Celts believed that the night before the new year, there was no boundary between the worlds of the living and dead so on the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, believing that was the day that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. They thought the otherworldly spirits caused trouble, damaged crops and so they would get Druids or Celtic priests to see into the future in order to find some piece on this dark times. Those predictions about the future were really important to these people because they were comforting during the long, dark winter.
To celebrate this event, the Druids had huge sacred bonfires where the people burned crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During this ritual, the Celts wore costumes, mostly of animal skin and heads, and tried to predict each others’ fortunes. After this was over, they relit their hearth fires which they had extinguished earlier that evening in hopes that it would protect them from the coming winter.
The Roman Empire had conquered most of the Celtic territory by 43 A.D, ruling for 400 years. During that time, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the Celtic celebration of Samhain. First was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead, and the second was a day honoring the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. Pomona is symbolized by an apple, which is where the tradition of bobbing for apples most likely came from. In 1609 A.D., the Pantheon in Rome was dedicated in honor of all Chirstain martyrs and All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church, but was later expanded to include saints as well. By the 9th century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, blending in with older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day to honor the dead, which was very similar to Samhain. The All Saints Day, also called All-hallows or All-Hallowmas, evolved into All-Hallows Eve, which in turn evolved into what is now known as Halloween.
Halloween was mostly celebrated in colonial New England and the southern colonies, but an American version of it began to emerge, with public events to celebrate the harvest by sharing stories of the dead, telling fortunes, dancing, singing, etc. Colonial Halloween traditions also included ghost-stories and mischief. Halloween really became more popular when there were many new immigrants in the second half of the 19th century, especially because of the Irish fleeing the Irish Potato Famine.
I never would have thought that Halloween went so far back in history. The holiday has definitely evolved, and it’s also lost a lot of its superstitious and religious connotations. But throughout all those years, it seems like there was always the common theme of Halloween bringing a sense of community. It sounds like those stories of the dead, the fortune-telling, and bonfires brought people together to a hopeful night of ceremony.