Spooky season is upon us everyone so here’s a post discussing Halloween’s history. Modern Halloween as we know it has its origins in ancient times. It began with the Celtic festival of Samhain, pronounced sow-en or sah-when. Samhain was first celebrated thousands of years ago by the Celts. It was the last harvest festival of the year and was the start of a new year for the Celts. It also marked the beginning of winter, a time of cold and survival as people’s lives depended on how bountiful their crops had been. The Celts could only hope they had stored enough food for the winter, which surely made the thought of their own mortality more acute. A bonfire would be lit on Samhain night to honor the gods and pray for the sun’s return. The veil between the world of the living and the dead was believed to be at its thinnest on Samhain, allowing spirits and supernatural beings like fairies to roam the earth. The dead were honored with food and drink left out for them and the fairies as a way of appeasement in order to prevent bad luck the next year. Candles were lit to help guide the dead to the other side and to welcome home the spirits of relatives. It is believed that the Celts dressed in costumes to avoid being kidnapped by fairies or harmed by wandering spirits. Samhain was seen as a good night to look into the future because of the permeable veil. The Druids, the Celts’ priests, would make predictions of the future with help from the spirits and the telling of prophecies became one of the origins of telling ghost stories.
Further, the ancient Romans worshipped Pomona, the goddess of orchards and fruits. She was celebrated along with her husband Vertumnus in a festival in which the goddess was thanked for the harvest with apples and nuts. When the Romans invaded parts of the British Isles, they left their mark as their harvest symbols became forever linked with Halloween. Apple bobbing became a popular fall activity because of the association with Pomona. The Romans also celebrated the Lemuria on May 13th. They believed ghosts would come to haunt the living and offerings were left out for ancestors to avoid hauntings. Likewise, they would throw black beans and clash bronze pots to remove dangerous spirits from the home. In 609 AD, the Catholic Church superseded Lemuria by creating All Saints’ Day, meant to honor saints without their own feast days. They made All Saints’ Day fall on May 13th in an attempt to convert pagans. All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, was later moved to November 1st to take away influence from Samhain. The night before All Saints’ Day, October 31st, became known as All Hallows’ Evening or All Hallows’ Eve, which eventually shortened into the more familiar Halloween. All Souls’ Day was added on November 2nd to honor all departed Christians, thus further tying this time of year with death.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, on All Souls’ Day, the poor and children would go “souling” by knocking on doors and asking for money or food like soul cakes, spiced cakes with raisins. In return, the beggars would offer prayers for the householder’s dead relatives and for those trapped in purgatory. Other traditions to start in this time were “mumming” and “guising,” both of which involved people wearing costumes and singing or putting on short performances to receive food or money. Like in ancient times, sometimes the costumes were meant for the person to avoid detection by harmful spirits. These customs, along with more ancient ones, are believed by some to have been the origins of trick-or-treating.
During the colonial period in the United States, southern colonies like Virginia and Maryland had Halloween parties to celebrate the harvest, tell ghost stories, sing and dance, and bob for apples. When Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in the US during the 19th century, they brought their All Hallows’ Eve customs with them. The festivities that took place on October 31st became popular with Americans, although they took longer to gain a foothold in Puritan New England. A custom these immigrants brought with them was the craving of jack o’lanterns from turnips. Americans preferred using pumpkins however, which are native to the Americas. Likewise, the Irish and Scottish also brought the tradition of dressing up in costumes and going door to door. During the Victorian and Edwardian periods, Halloween parties were held regularly. At these parties, people would wear costumes, tell ghost stores, play games, and tell fortunes, especially ones that concerned finding a future husband. The settings for these parties would be decorated with fall foliage as well as witches, jack o’lanterns, cats, bats, owls, ghosts, and skulls.
By the late 1800s, some began to use Halloween as an excuse to play pranks. Mischief Night in particular appears to have origins in Yorkshire, England and immigrants from there brought their traditions of this night with them to the US. This mischief often involved the destruction of property, hiding objects on their owners, reassembling equipment on roofs, and even overturning outhouses. Throwing eggs, playing ding-dong ditch, and toilet papering yards all became part of Mischief Night, now commonly held on the night before Halloween. To curtail the vandalism, towns began to hold parades, costume contests, and games and competitions to keep the unruly youth in line on Halloween. By the 1920s and 30s, Halloween parades and community gatherings were held regularly and children took up the tradition of modern trick-or-treating. World War II halted Halloween celebrations for a time, due to both product rationing and patriotic efforts to put the focus on supporting the troops. The holiday managed to survive the war and continued to grow in popularity. The effort to preserve Halloween was aided by the media and candy companies.
In more recent decades, haunted house attractions, corn mazes, and haunted hayrides are popular visits. Hollywood of course doesn’t miss out on taking part in Halloween. It has become tradition to watch Horror movies and spooky TV shows and cartoons during October. Many homeowners have also taken to decorating their houses with elaborate displays featuring animatronics and inflatable decorations. Americans spent over eight billion dollars on Halloween in 2019 according to the National Retail Federation.
Modern pagans and witches have also breathed new life into Halloween’s predecessor Samhain. For them, Samhain is the time to honor your ancestors and deceased loved ones and to visit their graves. Some witches will hold a Dumb Supper in which they eat in silence and leave a place for the dead. As the veil between worlds is thin on Samhain, many witches will also communicate with the dead and perform divination. Bonfire rituals to honor the gods and nature are likewise a common practice on this night. As Samhain is considered the start of a new year, it is also a time for self-reflection and taking care of unfinished business.
Other cultures also have holidays dedicated to the dead. Mexicans observe El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) from November 1st to the 2nd. The holiday combines indigenous traditions with Spanish Catholic ones. It is a happy festival in which Mexicans celebrate the dead by setting up altars dedicated to deceased relatives and visiting gravesites and having picnics. They wear skeleton costumes and make sugar skulls and skeleton-shaped bread.
However you celebrate, remember that one way or another you are keeping ancient traditions alive. So have fun this Halloween and keep it creepy!
- The Haunted History of Halloween, documentary from The History Channel
- Creating Your Vintage Hallowe’en: The Folklore, Traditions, and some Crafty Makes by Marion Paull.
- “What’s the Actual History of Halloween—and Why Do We Celebrate It on October 31?”by Blair Donovan and Marissa Gold from Country Living. Link: https://www.countryliving.com/entertaining/a40250/heres-why-we-really-celebrate-halloween/
- “The History of Halloween, Part 2: Colonies, Immigration, and WWII” by S.A. Russell. Link: https://storiesforghosts.com/the-history-of-halloween-america/
- “All About Samhain” by Patti Wigington from Learn Religions. Link: learnreligions.com/all-about-samhain-2562691