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History and Origins of Halloween

Updated on October 15, 2014

Halloween wasn't always a holiday where you stuff your face with candy and sweets, watch scary movies and get dragged out by your kids /younger siblings (or cousins, relatives, etc.) to trick or treat. Halloween is actually thousands of years old celebration that has roots in Celtic, Roman, Christian and pagan beliefs and traditions. Closely associated with the Celtic festival of Samhain 2,000 years ago, Halloween has evolved into a big corporate spending day. But let’s explore the history behind Halloween,

UK Union Jack Flag
UK Union Jack Flag | Source
Celtic knot symbol
Celtic knot symbol | Source

Celtic Origins

Halloween originated 2,000 years from the Celtic festival known as Samhain. The Celts lived in areas known now as the United Kingdom, Southern France and Ireland. This festival, Samhain, celebrated their new year which began on November 1, signifying the end of summer harvest time and the start of winter.

Winter was very different thousands of years ago, and it was harsher bitter, dark, and for a lot of early peoples symbolizes death. Starvation, and being frozen to death were some of the things ancient peoples faced.

Even so, with all the death going on during this time, the Celts were superstitious. Believing that on the night before their new year, the border between the living and dead became blurred and thin. That night of October 31st aka Samhain was a time the Celts believed ghosts of their dead were free to return to earth and walk among the living.

The Celts saw this both a nuisance (they believed the dead damaged their crops) and as important because the Celtic priests known the Druids were able to make predictions about the new years with the help of these ghosts.

During Samhain, Druids created bonfires where the people gathered to make animal sacrifices and burned crops meant to honor their Celtic deities (gods). The Celtic peoples would also tell each other’s fortunes and wear costumes composed of animal skins and heads.

Part of the Holy Roman Empire
Part of the Holy Roman Empire | Source
Pantheon in Rome
Pantheon in Rome | Source
Pope Gregory III
Pope Gregory III | Source

How it mixed with Pagan traditions

As history will tell, the Roman Empire conquered most of the Celts’ lands around 43 A.D. They ruled for about 400 years introducing their own pagan traditions into the mix. Specifically two Roman festivals, Pomona and Feralia.Feralia, was a festival in late October that honored the passing of the dead, while Pomona was a goddess of trees and fruits which they took a day to honor. Pomona’s symbol was specifically an apple.

Later in this period, the Pantheon in Rome (a mass burial and sacred place for important persons, in this case Christian martyrs, was built and commissioned by Pope Boniface on May 13th 609 A.D.. This led to the introduction and creation of All Martyrs Day.

A later pope, Pope Gregory III would move the observance dates of All Martyrs Day from May 13 to November 1st and expand this day to include saints along with martyrs. During this time, Christianity influence many parts of the Celtic lands (along with the world) and a bit of cultural mixing went on. This saw the blending of newer Christian traditions and older Celtic traditions.

At around 1000 A.D. the Catholic church designated November 2nd as All Souls Day, which was a day created to celebrate and honor the dead. This day was very similar to the Celtic Samhain festival (parades, people dressed up in costumes, bonfires, etc.). This day was also known as All-hallowmas or All-hallows. All-hallowmas is derived from a Middle English word, Alholowmesse which translates to All Saints’ Day. By now we have three days all similar to each other and that all fell around the same time. Sainhain, the Celtic festival on the night of October 31st which ring in the new year. All Martyrs Day on November 1st All Souls Day (or All Saints Day) on November 2nd. Eventually the three days became synonymous with each other which lead to it being called All-hallows eve and then finally Halloween.

Thirteen Colonies 1775 map
Thirteen Colonies 1775 map | Source
Great Potato Famine of 1946
Great Potato Famine of 1946 | Source

Halloween in America and the rest of the world

Fast forward to colonial America. Before the United States of America and where there 13 colonies ruled/governed by England. Specifically colonial New England, Halloween didn’t take off, due to the strict Puritan/Protestant belief systems.

Even so, Halloween took off and was more common in the southern colonies and middle states like Maryland. During this period, there was a great meshing of cultures (Native American, various European ethnic groups) which formed a unique and very American twist to Halloween.

Colonial Halloween celebrations involved into a community activity where neighbors will celebrate harvest time by telling fortunes and ghost stories, singing, dancing and mischief. They were more in tune to local autumn celebrations then commemorating the dead or saints as we saw in Celtic and early Christian celebrations of this thing known as Halloween.

Again in the mid-19th century, Halloween saw another transformation. During this time America was a new and promising country, which the Old World (Europe) was frequently turning to as a beacon of hope. This meant immigration, and during this time the Irish were coming in as immigrants due to the Great Potato Famine of 1946.

Remember that the Irish have Celtic roots (along with English and Christian roots). With the flood of Irish brought new traditions to Halloween in America. They introduce the tradition of dressing up in costumes and going house to house asking for money or food (trick or treating). So much so that in the late 1800s there was a push for Halloween to more of a holiday then just a local and communities based celebration. Suddenly Halloween parties that both adults and children can enjoy began popping up everywhere.

By the early 20th century (1920s, 1930s) games, foods for the season and costumes were more frequent and accepted as part of Halloween parties. This also saw the departure of superstitious and religious connotations associated with early Halloween celebrations. Halloween had become more secular.

Howden Pumpkin
Howden Pumpkin | Source

Big Business/Globalization of Halloween

Halloween was now resemble holiday complete with town-wide parties and parades. Even so, mischief took over (perhaps the anonymity of costumes) led to vandalism that plague Halloween celebrations for decades. This changed in the 1950s where Halloween became more geared towards the young. Trick or treating was popularized and it allowed for everyone to not only be included but accountable for their own actions. Vandalism went down because neighborhoods and communities became more involved with Halloween and everyone could essentially dress up and get treats.

Opportunists with an eye for business and open markets further transform Halloween to a big business. In the 1960s the Howden pumpkin, a pumpkin created by Massachusetts farmer, John Howden; revolutionized carving pumpkins by creating a new breed of pumpkin was easier to carve on.

Now Halloween as a national celebration that grosses about 6 billion a year annually, thus becoming America’s 2nd largest commercial holiday. While as trade and globalization further spread Halloween to the world (especially Japan)

Happy Halloween
Happy Halloween | Source

From its humbled beginnings, Halloween has spawn to an annual worldwide tradition and commercialized business; loved and celebrated all around the world. Thank You for taking time to read my hub!!! Please comment below!

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    • deecoleworld profile image

      deecoleworld 3 years ago from USA

      @yasirchohan: AWWW thank you for reading and commenting!!!

    • yasirchohan profile image

      Yasir chohan 3 years ago from Reisterstown

      This is detailed, well organized and useful. you chose wonderful pictures too.

      I always wanted to learn about the origin of Halloween but I never could find the time to Google it. Hurray hub hopping ^-^