Ah, Halloween – my favorite day of the year. Halloween marks the transition between the light of autumn and the darkness of winter, between the plenty of the fall harvest and the scarcity of winter, the transition between life and death. This celebration is observed by people all over the world on October 31st, the evening before the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day, known as All Hallows’ Eve and later, Halloween.
It’s a time of celebration and superstition, part of a three-day observance of Allhallowtide, from the original Middle English Alholowmesse, meaning All Saints’ Day, by some churches.
Allhallowtide spans a three-day period, beginning with All Saints’ Eve (October 31), when many people of all types of faiths remember the dead, including family members, saints, martyrs and the faithful departed.
Over the years, Halloween has evolved into a secular, community, family and child-friendly celebration, with activities such as costume parties, trick-or-treating and bobbing for apples.
Origins of Halloween
It’s believed that Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain or Samhuinn, adopted and transformed over the centuries to become what we know as the festival of today.
In both the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian church movements, early Christians were accustomed to solemnizing the deaths of martyrs. By the 6th and 7th centuries, the Popes of the Catholic Church had established specific anniversaries to celebrate these saints and martyrs. On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church.
The feast of All Saints is traced to the 8th century, when Pope Gregory III (who was Syrian, and the last non-European Pope until Pope Francis’ election in 2013) expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs. He also moved the observance day from May 13 to November 1, dedicating it as a time to honor all saints and martyrs, hence the name All Saints Day.
By the 9th century, the influence of Western Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where Christian festivals and traditions were gradually blended with older Celtic rites and gradually replaced them. Pope Gregory III, in an astute move to satisfy the needs of disparate peoples and regions, combined All Saints Day with the Celtic holiday of Samhain, retaining ancient customs and traditions while introducing newer religious observances.
The Celts were people who trace their history to the Iron Age and Medieval Europe, speaking multiple Celtic languages with some cultural similarities. Though their exact geographic spread is uncertain, it’s commonly accepted that the Celts lived across a wide geographical area including what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, Austria, Poland, Belgium, France and northern Italy, and extending to eastern Europe and parts of modern-day Turkey.
By the middle of the first millennium A.D., the expansion of the Roman Empire had led to the conquest of most Celtic territory. Over the next four hundred years, during the period that the Romans ruled Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.
The first Roman celebration combined with Samhain was Feralia, an ancient Roman festival held in late February, when the Romans traditionally celebrated the “Manes”, or Roman spirits of the deceased. This day marked the end of Parentalia, a nine-day festival (13–21 February) honoring the Romans’ dead ancestors.
The second Roman festival incorporated into Samhain was a day honoring Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards. Pomona is often depicted with apples, fruit and cornucopia as her symbols. Celebrated on August 13th of the Roman calendar, Pomona’s festival was incorporated into the Celtic celebration of Samhain and explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
Initially, Samhain (pronounced sow-in) was celebrated by the Celts on November 1 as their new year. The Celts recognized just two seasons, summer and winter. The day of Samhain marked the transition between these seasons: the end of the season of light, growth and harvest, and the beginning of darkness and winter, often associated with human death. The Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.
The Celts worshipped numerous regional and tribal deities, including several which Julius Caesar, in a passage from Commentarii de Bello Gallico (The Gallic War, 52–51 BC), equated to Roman gods such as Mercury, Mars, Apollo, Jupiter and Minerva.
Samhain, the night of October 31, was believed to be the night that ghosts of the dead returned to earth, and in doing so, caused trouble and damaged crops. In honor and celebration of these deities, and to ward off the ghosts and troubled spirits, ancient Druids built huge, ritual bonfires. People wore disguises and costumes consisting of animal heads and skins and gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.
Celts also believed that the presence of spirits and ghosts made it easier for Celtic priests, known as Druids, to communicate with the “other world” and make predictions about the future.
For the Celts, these prophecies were extremely important. They helped to explain the natural phenomena that would have an impact on the annual harvest, and offered some guidance and comfort during the long winter.
When the celebration was over, the home hearth fires which had been extinguished earlier that evening, were re-lit from the sacred bonfire, to help protect them during the dark, cold winter.
It is widely believed today that the Christian church replaced the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The Romans and Catholic church celebrated All Souls Day similarly to Samhain.
Early traditions included the lighting of bonfires and wearing costumes to ward off wandering ghosts, as well as attending church services and lighting candles to honor the dead.
A number of countries around the world celebrate the spirits of the dead at some time or another during the year.
In Mexico and other Latin American countries, Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” is the most important holiday in Mexico.
Spanning three days, starting on October 31st and culminating on November 2nd, Mexicans remember family members who have died.
Many believe that the spirits of the deceased leave heaven during this time to visit earth for a short period, when they are reunited with their loved ones.
The belief is that October 31st, the same day as American Halloween, is the night when children who have passed descend to visit their families.
Halloween in America
In colonial New England, Halloween celebrations were extremely limited, because Protestant beliefs there had diverged from the Catholic church during the Reformation. Anglicans in the southern colonies and Catholic colonists in Maryland recognized All Hallow’s Eve in their church calendars, and so, in early America, the celebration of Halloween was much more common in those regions.
Colonial Halloween celebrations included public events celebrating the fall harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the deceased, predictions of the future and fortune-telling, as well as dancing and singing. However, it was only after the great Irish potato famine and the resulting mass migration of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century, that Halloween became a major celebration in North America.
The festival was gradually assimilated into mainstream culture, merging with regional beliefs and customs, and became a distinctly American version of Halloween. In Cajun areas, a nocturnal Mass was said in cemeteries on Halloween night, with families sometimes spending the entire night at the graveside of a deceased loved one.
One of the traditions Americans adopted from the European All Hallows’ Eve was to dress up in costume and go house to house asking for food or money. This tradition was rooted in the ancient ritual of “souling”, a medieval practice of children and the poor going door to door begging for “soul cakes”, in exchange for a prayer.
Related to “mumming”, the practice of performing in disguise, souling eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
“Soul! Soul! For a soul cake!
I pray, good missus, a soul-cake!
An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry.
Any good thing to make us merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him that made us all.
Up with the kettle and up with the pan.
Give us good alms and we’ll be gone.”
Telling the future on Halloween was another tradition held by young women, who felt they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors.
If a young woman peeled an apple and threw the peel behind her back, it was believed that the peel’s shape would form into the first letter of her future husband.
It was also believed that if an unmarried woman sat in front of a mirror in a dark room, the face of her future husband would appear. If a skull appeared in the mirror instead, then she was doomed to die unmarried.
By the late 19th century, Halloween in America turned into a holiday more centered on community. Over the next few decades and into the twentieth century, particularly after concerns over vandalism, arson and mischief in various cities across America, community and political leaders encouraged Halloween to evolve into a holiday aimed at the young. Local leaders and the media encouraged parents to remove frightening, terrifying or grotesque elements out of Halloween celebrations.
Because of these efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.
Trick-or-treating was encouraged as an effort to entertain children and keep them occupied rather than wreak havoc with pranks and vandalism. The idea of trick-or-treating was first introduced in America in the 1950s, and candy vendors started to capitalize on the holiday by producing small-sized treats to maximize the number of goodies that could be distributed by adults and collected by children.
A new American tradition was born. Today, 93% of American children participate in Halloween trick-or-treating.
Halloween has become a beloved holiday, as well as one of the most commercial celebrations in American culture. In 2016, it’s estimated that Americans will spend an estimated $8.4 billion on Halloween candy, costumes, decorations and more, an almost 20% increase from 2015 spending. According to the latest survey on Halloween by the National Retail Federation, 7 in 10 American consumers plan to hand out candy, and nearly half will decorate their home or dress in costume.
Halloween has become big business but for many, it remains rooted in its early Celtic and Christian origins. Whether you celebrate Halloween just for the candy, for the opportunity to dress up in a wild costume, or to revere the departed, we hope Halloween is meaningful to you. Happy Halloween!