Halloween's origins date back to the
ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived
2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and
northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the
end of the summer, the harvest, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a
time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that
on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living
and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated
Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the
presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic
priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent
on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of
comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people
gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During
the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads
and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When the celebration
was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier
that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the
By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the
course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two
festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration
of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans
traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to
honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is
the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably
explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today
By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands.
In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints'
Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the
pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related,
but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or
All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day) and
the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve
and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make
November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly
to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints,
angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints',
All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas.
As European immigrants came to America, they brought their varied Halloween
customs with them. Because of the rigid Protestant belief systems that
characterized early New England, celebration of Halloween in colonial times
was extremely limited there. It was much more common in Maryland and the
southern colonies. As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic
groups, as well as the American Indians, meshed, a distinctly American version
of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included "play parties,"
public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share
stories of the dead, tell each other's fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial
Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and
mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual
autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere
in the country.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new
immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing
Ireland's potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of
Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans
began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money,
a practice that eventually became today's "trick-or-treat" tradition. Young
women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance
of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors.
In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday
more about community and neighborly get-togethers, than about ghosts, pranks,
and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children
and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on
games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by
newspapers and community leaders to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque"
out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most
of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered
holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment.
Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to
plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during this time. By the
1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had
evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers
of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic
centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated.
Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was
also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire
community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also
prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children
with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued
to grow. Today, Americans spend $2.5 billion annually on Halloween, making
it the Country's second largest commercial holiday.
Information courtesy of
the History Channel. Visit www.historychannel.com
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