The History of Halloween

Halloween is fun and just a little scary, but how did we all end up celebrating a holiday that’s all about ghosts, ghouls and candy? Take a look at the origins of Halloween and how cultures around the world celebrate it.

The Beginning
2,000 years ago, a people known as the Celts (pronounced kelts) lived in the area that is now the United Kingdom, Ireland and northern France. The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1, which marked the end of summer and the harvest. It also marked the beginning of winter, which the Celts associated with death. They believed that on the night before the new year, October 31, the distinction between the worlds of the living and the dead were at their weakest. This was the night they celebrated Samhain (pronounced sow-in), when they believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth to cause trouble.

During the celebration, the Celts would dress up in costumes, build huge bonfires and attempt to tell each other’s futures. Each family would take an ember from the bonfire home to re-light in their hearth. Embers would be carried in holders, usually made from a turnip or gourd. Because they were afraid of the evil spirits, who they believed came out that night, they would carve scary faces in their ember holders in the hopes of frightening the spirits away. This is where the tradition of jack-o-lanterns began.

Becoming Halloween
Eventually the Roman Empire took control of the territory that the Celts had once ruled. In the 400 years that the Romans ruled, the Celtic celebration of Samhain became combined with two of the Roman festivals: Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead, and Pomona, a day to honor the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol is the apple and it’s believed that the merging of Pomona into Samhain is how we got the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples.

During the seventh century, in what many feel was an attempt to replace the celebration of Samhain with a Christian holiday, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints, or All-Hallows Day. October 31 then became the eve of All-Hallows Even, which eventually became Halloween.

Candy and Cats
So now that you know where the costumes, pumpkin carving and bobbing for apple traditions came from, what about trick-or-treating? It is thought that this favorite tradition of kids stems from the Celts annual food offerings to their Gods after harvest. Once the harvest was completed, the Celts would go to each house in order to collect food that would then be offered up to the Gods. Children often asked for wood and kindling as well, which would be used in the Samhain bonfires. It is not hard to see how this tradition eventually evolved into today’s trick-or-treating custom.

One of the most common symbols associated with Halloween is the black cat. This is because Celts believed that, on the night before the new year, the spirits of their friends and family were more likely to return to the earth. However, these spirits would not take on a human form but instead their souls would enter into an animal, most commonly a black cat. As result, black cats have been forever associated with Halloween, magic, ghosts, and all things other-wordly.

Halloween Around the World
Halloween is most popular in the United States and Canada. According to Hallmark, Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of holiday popularity. Outside of North America, Halloween is not generally celebrated. However, there are a couple of similar festivals celebrated elsewhere.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead, or El Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated in late October and early November. The celebrations vary from region to region, but it is always a day to honor the dead and celebrate the continuity of life. Traditionally, a family will visit the gravesites of relatives, decorate them with flowers and have a picnic while telling stories about the lives of the departed. Another Dia de los Muertos tradition is making beautiful, colorful sugar skulls to eat with the picnic.

Even though Halloween’s roots can be traced back to England, it isn’t generally celebrated there anymore. However, some of the traditions associated with Samhain are carried on through Guy Fawkes Night, which is celebrated every November.

Known as "Bonfire Night", Guy Fawkes Day celebrates the memory of Guy Fawkes, a Catholic who tried to blow up the House of Commons in London in 1605 in an attempt to have the Protestant king removed from power. Fawkes was executed in a gruesome way shortly after the attempt. Originally, people would burn effigies of the Pope to mark the day. Eventually, this was replaced by burning effigies of Fawkes, a tradition that continues today. However, there is one city, Lewes, where an effigy of the Pope is still burnt every year.