Have you ever wondered about the history of Halloween? It’s an annual celebration that occurs every October 31. And let’s face it. When most of us think of the holiday, we think of going to haunted houses, dressing up in costumes, attending Halloween parties, and eating and handing out lots of candy. But have you ever wondered “why” we do these things? We have. Keep reading to learn the history of Halloween. We promise the post won’t be that spooky. Wa-hah-hah-hah!
The History of Halloween
Halloween originated with the ancient Celts who lived 2,000 years ago in the areas that are now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. They celebrated Samhain, which is Irish Gaelic for “summers end.” The Scots Gaelic spelling is “Samhuin” or “Samhuinn.” During Samhain, people would wear costumes and light bonfires to ward off spirits or ghosts. The celebration also marked the end of summer, the harvest, and the beginning of winter (associated with human death). After all, the Celts believed that on the night before a new year, the veil between the spirit world and the living became thin so that both worlds blurred together.
During this time, the Celts believed it was easier for the Druids or Celtic priests to make predictions about the future. After all, the people depended on the prophecies for comfort and direction during the cold and long dark winter.
To commemorate Samhain, Druids built and lit bonfires. People burned crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During this time, the Celts wore costumes, but they weren’t like the ones we have today. They wore animal heads and skins and would attempt to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration ended, everyone re-lit their hearthstones from the bonfires to help keep them warm and protect them during the winter.
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire conquered the majority of the Celtic lands. Because of this, the Roman festivals of Feralia (commemorated the passing of the dead in late October) and Pomona were combined with Samhain. In fact, Pomona is the Roman goddess of fruit and trees who’s symbol is the apple. This is where we get the watery Halloween game “bobbing” for apples.
During the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a day to honor all saints (hallows = saints). The holiday and the night before it, which was the Celts traditional Samhain, was soon-to-be-called All-Hallows Eve or what we know as Halloween.
It didn’t take long for Christianity to spread across the Celts lands, and by the 9th century, it blended with older Celtic traditions. The church designated November 2 as All Souls Day as a way to honor the dead. Many believe those in charge wanted to replace the Celts holiday with a church-approved holiday. In fact, people celebrated All Souls Day much like Samhain with bonfires and parades and by dressing up in costumes such as angels, devils, and saints.
Throughout time, Halloween has evolved into a fun-filled day and night with kids and adults participating in activities such as trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving, going to Halloween parties, dressing up in costumes, going to haunted houses, and eating all sorts of sweet treats.
Let’s explore further why we wear costumes, trick-or-treat, and carve pumpkins.
Why Do We Wear Costumes?
Now that you know the history of Halloween, let’s discover why we wear costumes. Whether they’re homemade or store bought, doesn’t matter. Although, some would argue that homemade is better. Anyway…The Celts would dress up in costumes the day before All Saints Day (November 1) to ward off evil spirits who they believed walked amongst them. They wore masks as a way to mask who they were so the spirits couldn’t find them.
The Puritans in America disapproved of Halloween’s pagan’s origins, so they didn’t celebrate the holiday. As time progressed, the Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in America in great numbers, so the holiday made a resurgence. Children began to dress up in costumes for fun. When Halloween became a part of mainstream America in the 1950s, it became a family-friendly evening with colorful, creative, and not-so-scary costumes. Today, costumes range from ghosts to goblins, superheroes, witches, zombies, pirates, clowns, movie characters, book characters, and more!
What’s the Point of Trick-or-Treating for Candy?
The history of Halloween includes “souling.” In the Middle Ages, on All Souls Day (November 2), children would say prayers for the dead and in exchange, they’d receive ale, food or money. During parades in England, the poor would beg for food and receive pastries called “soul cakes” in exchange for praying for a family’s deceased relatives.
In Scotland, the practice of “guising” was popular with children and young adults. They would visit their neighbors and tell jokes or sing and received coins, fruit, or wine as a reward. Fast forward to 1920s North America, and children followed the traditions of the early immigrants’. However, neighbors chased them away with sweets and candies. See that. We have our ancestors to thank for our current practice of trick-or-treating.
Why Do We Carve Pumpkins?
Do you know the story of “Stingy Jack?” Legend has it that Jack wasn’t a nice guy when he was on Earth, so he wasn’t allowed into heaven or hell when he died. Since he didn’t have anywhere to go, Jack grabbed a turnip, scooped out the inside, and filled it with glowing coal, so could wander around at night. The Irish referred to Jack as “Jack of the Lantern,” or Jack O’Lantern.
Because of Stingy Jack’s haunted tale, kids and adults scooped out beets, potatoes, or turnips and set them aglow to keep spooky characters like Jack away. When early settlers came to America, they discovered pumpkins. It’s believed that the orangey vegetable replaced the other vegetables. After all, potatoes already have eyes. It makes more sense to carve a pumpkin because you can add a mouth, ears, nose, eyebrows, etc.
How Do Other Countries Celebrate Halloween?
In some countries, Halloween isn’t that big of a deal as it is in the U.S. In fact, Great Britain celebrates Guy Fawkes Day (he tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London) on November 5. It’s a day filled with fireworks along with burning effigies of Guy on a bonfire. In Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, they celebrate Halloween just like Americans. Sweet!
Do You Believe in Superstitions?
Halloween is a holiday shrouded in magic, mystery, mysticism, and superstition. After all, it started with the Celts who celebrated Samhain by wearing costumes and lighting bonfires to keep evil spirits away. However, it was also a time when they felt close to deceased friends and relatives. Friendly spirits could expect to have a place set for them at the dinner table. They’d also find treats along the side of roads and on doorsteps. The Celts also lit candles to help their deceased relatives make their way back to the spirit world.
Fast forward to today, and we avoid black cats like the plague, afraid they’ll bring us bad luck. The superstition goes back to the Middle Ages when people believed that witches shapeshifted into black cats to avoid detection.
Finally, you may also avoid walking under ladders for the fear of attracting bad luck. Why? Because the ancient Egyptians believed triangles were sacred. Plus, walking under an unstable ladder may be dangerous. What other superstitions exist? Breaking mirrors, stepping on cracks, no opening umbrellas inside, or spilling salt, to name a few. Do any of these, and you may have bad luck.
Have a Happy and Safe Halloween!
Today, Halloween has a scarier feel to it thanks to ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. You can thank comic books, graphic novels, movies, and TV shows for that! However, the history of Halloween and everything that goes with it has been shaped by history and legends. Whether you prefer a low-key, friendlier holiday or one that scares the bejesus out of you, Have a Happy and Safe Halloween!