We think of Halloween as ghouls, goblins, and loads of yummy treats. Trick-or-treating, Halloween parties and things that go “bump” in the night are just a few reasons why we adore this holiday. But Halloween has a rich past, and how this fall holiday got its start is quite surprising.
If you’ve always wondered about why we travel from house to house begging for candy, why we dress up in costumes that range from gory to hilarious, and why we simply love to scare one another on this spookiest of all holidays, then it pays to understand how and why Halloween first appeared, and how it has changed since its inception, nearly 2,000 years ago!
The Celtic Festival of Samhain
Many people are quite surprised to find that Halloween dates back nearly 2,000 years ago. Halloween first started as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which was considered the New Year for these ancient people who lived in the area that is now England and Ireland. This festival, which was celebrated every year on November 1, marked the end of the summer season and the harvest and the beginning of the winter, which was often a time of much death, disease and hunger.
The Celtic people believed that the night before November 1 was a time when the boundaries between life and death were blurred, so they always celebrated the evening before November 1 as a time when they believed the dead returned to earth. The Celtic people believed that the presence of ghosts allowed Celtic priests to better predict the future. Ghosts were often a source of comfort for this ancient civilization, who believed in many unworldly forces and gods.
The Celtic people, during this event, celebrated with huge bonfires, which were used to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. It was common for the Celtic people to also wear costumes during this period, which usually consisted of animal heads and animal skins.
The Roman Effect
Around 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered much of the Celtic territory and, for over 400 years, they ruled Celtic territory and slowly began to combine the Celtic festival of Samhain with two of their own festivals: Feralia and Pomona.
Feralia was celebrated in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead, while Pomona was named after the Roman goddess of the same name, who was the goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona symbolized the apple, which is probably why the apple is so significant in many Halloween celebrations! Bobbing for apples anyone?
The Catholic Influence
Around 609 A.D., the Pantheon in Rome was dedicated to all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast known as All Martyrs Day was established. All Martyrs Day was later changed to include all saints as well as martyrs, and the festival was moved to November 1. Many believe that it may have been the Catholic desire to replace the Celtic festival honoring the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday. All Saints Day was then created, and celebrations included bonfires, parades and costumes.
Halloween in America
Although it took some time for Halloween to gain popularity in America, because of the strict New England Protestant beliefs, Halloween first began taking shape in Maryland and other southern colonies. Halloween quickly took an American feel, and some of the first celebrations included parties to celebrate the harvest. Some of the popular activities of the time included sharing spooky stories of the dead, telling each other’s fortunes and engaging in lively singing and dancing. Halloween soon spread and, by the mid-nineteenth century, autumn festivals and Halloween celebrations were commonplace, thanks to the many immigrants that were pouring into America.
Many of the immigrants were of Irish descent, and soon they began to influence the Halloween that we know today. Irish and English traditions involved going from door to door in costumes and asking for food or money.
By the late 1800s, Halloween was soon formed into a community event, where neighborly visits and stories of ghosts and witchcraft were commonplace. Many newspapers at the time began encouraging people to take all things spooky out of their Halloween celebrations and instead make them fun and lighthearted, which took much of the superstitious and religious meanings out of this popular holiday.
By the 1920s, Halloween had successfully evolved into a fun holiday about children. Trick-or-treating began to also gain in popularity. Today, it is estimated that Americans spend more than $6 billion each year on all things Halloween. Halloween is now the second largest commercial holiday in the United States!