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Halloween kicks off what is arguably the most tradition-packed time of year for Americans. Everyone remembers their own childhood Halloween traditions, and as they make families of their own, new traditions are added to the old, and the holiday continues to evolve. While it may be well-know what your family tradition have been, many don’t know quite as much about the history of Halloween!
And this year, we are VERY curious to see how Halloween evolves yet again, this time to accommodate the coronavirus pandemic. But before we look to the future, let’s take a look back at the origins and evolution of Halloween.
We love to look back at history! Theoretically, if we know where we came from, we can figure out where we’re going.
The History of Halloween
Halloween dates back to the ancient Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the UK and northern France. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), was a celebration of the Celtic new year, and fell on November 1.
Now imagine life 2,000 years ago—simply having enough food to survive the year was everyone’s top priority. Celtic life centered on agriculture, so their new year signified the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. It is no surprise that death rates went up in communities when the weather turned cold, so human death was very much on people’s minds at this time of year. The celebration of Samhain took place on October 31, the night before the new year, when it was believed that the boundary between the words of the living and the dead became blurred. On this night, the dead could return to earth in the form of strange and powerful creatures.
The Celts believed that the presence of these spirits in the realm of the living made it easier for Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future. These predictions (“Will we survive the winter?”) were sources of comfort through the long winter months as food supplies ran low and shorter days were a source of worry.
On this sacred night, Druids built enormous bonfires, and people would gather around them to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. They wore costumes that mostly consisted of animal skins and heads while they told each other’s fortunes.
Eventually, the Romans took over and ruled the Celtic people for 400 years, conquering the majority of Celtic land by 43 A.D. In that time, two Roman festivals were incorporated into the festival of Samhain—Feralia, which commemorated the passing of the dead in late October, and Pomona, a day to honor the goddess of fruit and trees, namely the apple. This might explain why bobbing for apples is a fall tradition today.
Slowly but surely, the influence of Christianity took over Celtic lands and life. In the 8th century, All Saint’s Day (also called All-hallowmas, from the Middle English Alholomesse) was established on November 1 by the pope in Rome to honor Christian martyrs and saints. In the 9th century, All Soul’s Day was established on November 2 to honor the dead (and was probably an attempt to replace Samhain with a related holiday sanctioned by the church). All Soul’s Day bore striking resemblances to Samhain, with big bonfires and costumes of saints, angels and devils. As these three celebrations coexisted, they began to form something new. The traditional night of Samhain, October 31, began to be called All-Hallows Eve, and, eventually, Halloween.
Halloween in America
In colonial New England, Halloween didn’t exactly take off. Rigid Protestant culture kept the holiday in the southern colonies at first, but as beliefs and customs of Europeans meshed with those of Native peoples, a brand new version of Halloween began to emerge. Public events were established to celebrate the harvest where people would dance, sing, swap stories about the dead and tell each other’s fortunes.
By the middle of the 19th century, autumn festivities were common across the colonies, but it would be a little longer before the Halloween that we know today, with trick-or-treating, parties, pumpkin-carving, and modern superstitions, would emerge.