History of Halloween

No matter what your age, the last night of October is always one to look forward to celebrating. Halloween means kids running around in costumes. It also means family and friends getting together. What other holiday do you have an excuse to collect candy costume? Halloween wasn’t always the same celebration we experience today. In fact, Halloween’s origins date back thousands of years to the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. Samhain is pronounced sow-in.

The Holiday Known as Samhain

The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in present day United Kingdom, Ireland and northern France, celebrated Samhain as their new year on November 1. This time marked the end of summer and harvest period and the beginning of the winter. This is a cold and dark time in this region of the world. The Celts associated the season with death. They believed that on the night before Samhain the boundary between the living and the dead was distorted.

The Celts celebrated the night of October 31 when ghosts of the dead where believed to return to earth. The spirits would cause trouble and damage the community’s food supply. Druids thought it was easier to make predictions about the future during this time. For the Celts, the prophecies made by the Druids were an important source of comfort for the long, dark winter months ahead.

The Celts observed the event by burning crops and sacrificing animals to the gods in bonfires built by Druids. They wore costumes, typically of animal skins and heads, to tell each others’ fortunes. When the celebration was over, they lit their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire to protect them during the winter.

Romans soon conquered the territory occupied by the Celts. They ruled over the land for 400 years. Over the course of time, two Roman festivals were combined with Samhain. One was called Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second honored Pomona, the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol is the apple and was incorporated into the celebration of Samhain. This probably explains the modern day tradition of bobbing for apples.

Christian Influence on Halloween

The Christian influence spread into the Celtic lands by the year 800. About this time, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saint’s Day. Current belief is that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also referred to as All-hallows or All-Hallowmas, which was Middle English for All Saints’ Day. Eventually, the night before it began to be called All-hallows Eve and then Halloween. In the year 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day to honor the dead. The holiday was celebrated similarly to Samhain with bonfires, parades and costumes. Together, the three celebrations became known as Hallowmas.

As European immigrants came to America, they brought their varied Halloween customs with them. Because of rigid Protestant beliefs in early New England, the celebration of the holiday was limited. The beliefs of various European ethnic groups and the American Indians also began to mesh with the celebration of Halloween. The American version of Halloween began to materialize. The first American celebrations included public events held to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors would share stories of the deceased, tell fortunes, dance and sing. Colonial Halloween celebrations featured ghost stories and mischief. By the middle of the nineteenth century, autumn festivals were common but Halloween had not reached the entire country.

Immigrants Bring Halloween to America

Immigrants flooded America in the second half of the 1800s, especially Irish immigrants fleeing their country’s potato famine. Taking from both Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go from door-to-door asking for food or money. This practice became known as trick-or-treating. At the time, young women believed they could prophesize their future husband’s appearance by doing tricks with yarn and mirrors. By the late 1800s, Americans tried to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. They made parties for adults and children the norm. As a result, the holiday lost most of its superstitious and religious ties.

By the 1920s and 30s, Halloween had become completely community-centered with parades and parties for the whole town. Vandalism also began to disrupt Halloween celebrations. That trend slowed in the 1950s and the holiday began to focus on the young due to the baby boom. Trick-or-treating was revived as a way for the community to celebrate and a new American tradition was born. Today, Americans spend an estimated $10.6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday.

When we think of Halloween in America, many traditions are associated with the holiday. The most common tradition is dressing in Halloween costumes and trick or treating. Carving Jack-o-lanterns is also a common tradition that came from the Celts. The Celts used turnips instead of pumpkins.

The Legend of Jack o Lanterns and Other Lore

The legend of the Jack-o-lantern starts with a man named Jack, a notorious drunk and practical joker. Jack was said to have tricked the devil into climbing into a tree. He then carved an image of a cross into the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil in the highest branches of the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down. Legend says that after Jack died he was denied entrance into heaven because of his evil ways. Jack was then denied entrance into hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the cold, dark winter. Jack placed the light in a hallowed-out turnip to keep it lit longer. When the Irish came to America, they found pumpkins to be a lot more plentiful. This made the pumpkin the official Jack-o-lantern.

Witches and black cats have become mainstream images of Halloween. But where do they come from? Some folklore tells tales of witches gathering each year on Halloween. They arrive on broomsticks, to celebrate a party hosted by the devil. Superstitions claimed witches cast spells on unsuspecting people. Transforming themselves into different forms and caused other magical mischief. One superstition said if you wanted to meet a witch, you had to put your clothes on inside out and walk backwards on Halloween night. Then at midnight a witch would appear.

When early settlers arrived in America, they brought their belief in witches. These legends spread and combined with the beliefs of Native Americans who believed in evil spirits. This was combined with the black magic beliefs of African slaves. The black cat has often been associated with witches. It was even believed that a witch could shape shift into a cat. Others believed the cats were the spirit of the dead. The most common superstition is if a black cat crossed your path, you would experience bad luck. People would actually turn around and go the opposite direction to avoid bad luck.

Halloween is Full of Superstition

There are many other superstitions associated with Halloween. For example, the Welsh believed that when you sneezed you blew the soul out of the body. This is where “God bless you” originated. If someone sneezed on Halloween, it was especially dangerous because the devil could capture your soul. Other cultures believed that owls swooped down to eat the souls of the dying. If they heard an owl hooting, they would get scared and believed that turning your pockets inside out would make you safe. While eating dinner on Halloween, the Africans would eat in complete silence to encourage spirits to come to the table. And in Britain, people believed the devil was a nut gatherer. On Halloween they would wear nuts as magic charms. There is also a lot to be said about babies born on Halloween. It once was thought children born on this day can see and talk to ghosts and spirits. This was called the gift of second sight. Additionally, Halloween babies are supposed to enjoy lifelong protection against evil spirits.

Halloween also has some close ties to superstitions dealing with love. Some believe if you catch a snail on Halloween night and lock it in a flat dish you will see the first letter of your sweetheart’s name in the morning. Another one says that if a girl puts fresh rosemary and a silver coin under her pillow on Halloween, she will see her future husband in a dream. Girls who carry a lamp to a spring of water on this night are said to be able to see their future husband in the reflection. Additionally, carrying a broken egg in a glass to a spring of water during the day can not only see their future husband by mixing some of the spring water into the glass. She can also see a glimpse of her future children. Another old tradition said girls should go into a field and there scatter the seed of hemp while chanting “Hempseed I sow thee Come after me and show me”. Upon turning round, it was said each girl would see a vision of the man who would be her husband.

Modern Day Halloween in the United States

Modern day Halloween has also brought some new traditions to the table as well as variations on old ones. Visiting haunted houses is a more modern tradition that most likely started as a commercial venture and often works as a way to raise money for non-profit organizations. While dressing in costumes for this day dates back thousands of years, today we see an insurgence of costumes inspired by popular culture. Americans tend to see more humorous costumes than scary ones in the current times. Additionally, the tradition of trick-or-treating has become popular. The tradition infers that if someone is not satisfied with the treat you are likely to get a trick. It is an activity that has evolved into an activity for younger children accompanied by parents. Today older children and adults are more likely to attend a costume party instead. Most parties are held in homes but bars and nightclubs also hold similar events.

Other countries also celebrate holidays around the same time. In Mexico it is called The Day of the Dead, which coincides with All Souls’ Day and blends Catholic and Native American traditions. Mexicans decorate their homes with human skeletons, food for wondering spirits and graves for their deceased relatives. In England, Guy Fawkes’ Day has largely taken the place of Halloween. It is celebrated on November 5 and is a patriotic holiday. Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up parliament in the early 1600s but failed. The conspirators were tortured and executed before they could carry out their plans. The holiday commemorates this victory.

Halloween is one of the oldest and the second most popular only to Christmas in America. Millions celebrate the holiday each year without knowing its origins, which make the holiday that much more exciting. Some view Halloween as a time for fun, friends and family. Others still see its superstitious nature or ties to deceased. Some religions even view it as an unholy holiday. Whatever your view, you cannot deny the fascinating nature of the story of Halloween.