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, family and friends getting together and a chance talk with neighbors. What other holiday do you have an excuse to eat all the sugar you want and wear whatever you want? But 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, pronounced sow-in.
The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is the 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, which is a cold and dark time in this region of the world. The Celts associated the season with death and 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 causing trouble and damaging the community’s food supply. Celtic priests called Druids thought it was easier to make predictions about the future during this time. For the Celts whose existence relied entirely on the whims of nature, 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 Celtic Gods in bonfires built by the Druids. They wore costumes, typically of animal skins and heads, to tell each others’ fortunes. And when the celebration was over, the Celts lit their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire to protect them during the coming months.
Romans soon conquered the territory occupied by the Celts and 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, practiced 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 as a time to honor saints and martyrs. 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 such as angels, saints and devils. Together, the three celebrations became known as Hallowmas.
As European immigrants came to America, they brought their varied Halloween customs with them. But 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 and an American version 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 flooded America in the second half of the 1800s, especially Irish immigrants fleeing their country’s potato famine who popularized Halloween nationally. 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, a practice now known as trick-or-treating. At this 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, making 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 of the time. 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 $6.9 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, which has European and Celtic roots. These cultures believed they could avoid being recognized by the ghosts that came out on the night of Samhain by wearing masks. They would also place bowls of food outside their homes to satisfy the ghosts and prevent them from entering the home, which could be where trick-or-treating originated. Other sources point to beggars in Ireland who made their rounds to homes of the rich to ask for money and food. They would threaten them with “evil spirits” if they did not give.
Carving Jack-o-lanterns is also a tradition that came from the Celts -- only they used turnips instead of pumpkins. The legend of the Jack-o-lantern starts with a man named Jack, who was 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 said 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 into a hallowed-out turnip to keep it lit longer. When the Irish came to America, they found pumpkins to be a lot more plentiful, making 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, arriving on broomsticks, to celebrate a party hosted by the devil. Superstitions claimed witches cast spells on unsuspecting people, transformed 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 and 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.
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, which 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 brought to America as slaves 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, 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, but 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 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, such as movie stars or politicians. Americans tend to see more humorous costumes than scary ones in the current times. Additionally, the tradition of trick-or-treating, which infers that if someone is not satisfied with the treat you are likely to get a trick, has evolved into an activity for younger children accompanied by parents. The parents remember in the 1970s the rumors that poisoned Halloween candy was handed out. Today older children and adults are more likely to attend a costume party instead, where best costume prizes are awarded. 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. But whatever your view, you cannot deny the fascinating nature of the story of Halloween.