The history of Halloween


When you think of Halloween, what comes to mind? It's quite possible that traditions such as pumpkin carving, costume parties, trick-or-treating, watching scary movies and setting off fireworks are what remind you of 31 October. But did you know while the name 'Halloween' comes from a medieval Christian holiday, many of the customs we associate with the night-of-fright have their roots in practices dating back thousands of years to pre-Christian Europe?

To help ignite your Halloween spirit and prepare for the festivities ahead, we thought we'd share this illuminating timeline taking you from the earliest pagan rituals through to the Halloween of today.

Celtic Samhain (500 BC)

It's widely regarded that the origins of Halloween can be traced back to Celtic and Gaelic festivals that were prominent in ancient Britain and Ireland over 2,000 years ago. Oral traditions regarding such practices were only documented in the 9th century (when writing became more widely available), so it's unclear just how far back these early celebrations go. That said, it's generally agreed upon that the forerunner to Halloween is the Celtic festival of Samhain.  

Celebrated as the Celts' New Year, Samhain marked the end the harvest season and the beginning of winter — a time often associated with death. With the new year falling on 1 November, the Celts believed that during the night before, the boundary between the worlds of the living (summer) and the dead (winter) would intermingle. And so, Samhain was celebrated on their New Year's Eve to honour and appease the spirits that would return to Earth. 
 
Celtic priests, known as Druids, would construct massive bonfires so people could gather and make sacrifices in order to bless the year to come. Approaching the ceremonial fires, the Celts would adorn costumes, typically made from animal skulls and hides, while the Druids attempted to contact the passing spirits in order to make prophesies for the coming year. 

Roman Feralia (43 AD)

As the Romans swept through northern and western Europe between 390 BC and 43 AD, they conquered and subjugated much of the Celts' traditional lands and peoples. Their rule over the Celts brought along distinct (and very Roman) changes to Samhain. Historians believe that the Roman holiday Feralia and traditions centered around the goddess Pomona greatly influenced the original festival. 
 
Feralia was a day usually observed in late October in which Romans would bring offering to the tombs of their ancestors. Often, these gifts were in the form of food from the recent harvest which may have included Curcubitas — Roman pumpkin or squash. Given Feralia's connection to the afterlife, it's no surprise that this festival would be merged with an evening celebrating the possible return of spirits to the mortal realm. Additionally, the Romans used Samhain to further commemorate the goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. As the final harvest is reaped, sacrifices and offerings would be made to Pomona to ensure a fruitful return the following season. Some believe that tradition of bobbing for apples has its roots in Pomona being integrated into Samhain by the Romans.
 

All Hallows' Day (600 AD)

 By the 7th century, Christianity had spread all over Europe. Former Celtic peoples and their traditions began to adopt Christian symbolism, such as crosses, into their traditions and former pagan festivals were subsumed into the calendar of Christian rites and celebrations. In 609 AD, the Church established a single day honoring all of their saints and martyrs, All Saints' Day. Also called All Hallows' Day or Hallowmas, this feast was eventually moved to 1 November in order to overlap with Samhain and other non-Christian celebrations. 

 
Similar to Samhain and Feralia, the evening proceeding All Hallows' Day was greatly concerned with honoring the dead — in this case, deceased saints. It was observed with large bonfires where attendees adorned costumes, often dressing up as devils and angels or as the saints they were celebrating. This night of celebration would become known as All Hallows' Eve and eventually take the name Halloween.

The adoption of Celtic traditions and their subsumption into the Christian calendar allowed for Christianity to take hold in what were traditionally vibrant pagan communities. Pagan temples became Christian churches, ancient symbols became biblical ones and celebrations like Samhain were not forgotten entirely, but adapted to suit Europe's rapid turn to monotheism.

 

Spread to North America (1700s)

 When colonial settlers began arriving in North America, traditions such as All Hallows' Eve came with them. However, by the 1700s, these celebrations were not as popular as they were back in Europe, and when they did start to grow, they took on a uniquely American character. Owing to their strict, puritan lifestyle, many New Englanders actually shied away from celebrating the dead; but the colonial south began to adopt All Hallows' Eve traditions into their usual end-of-harvest festivities that would take place.


Of them, 'play parties', events where guests would dress up and share ghost stories, tell fortunes and sing and dance, became popular around the end of harvest. A predecessor to the contemporary Halloween costume party, these play parties would become more attached to the All Hallows' Eve traditions in Europe closer to the 19th and 20th centuries when the United States experienced a large influx of immigrants who helped popularize Halloween across the young nation. 

 

Halloween in the 20th century

By the 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, community oriented holiday. Parades and large banquets were put on as a way to boost morale heading into winter. Yet, the mystical nature of Halloween still shined through, with vandalism and pranking quickly becoming synonymous with the festival. To help counter this, Halloween began to be directed at younger generations and brought more into schools and made less of an official civic affair. 

Trick-or-treating was also revived as a way to pacify would-be prankster with treats. It also served as a relatively inexpensive way for the whole community to engage with the holiday, making Halloween a celebration that crossed class lines.
 
A much more recent tradition is of course the Halloween movie. Since about the 1970s, film studios have been putting out horror, thriller or Halloween-themed comedies every October. Arriving just in time for the fateful day itself, watching scary movies throughout the month of October— a time recently dubbed 'Spooky Season'— is perhaps the most modern tradition to attached itself to the ancient Samhain festival.
 

 

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