As the leaves start turning and the sun gets lazier, we can’t help but get excited for the Halloween season. But, while we gorge ourselves on candy and pumpkin seeds, it’s important to remember where Halloween started. Who do we have to thank for this amazing tradition?
Halloween dates back to the Celts, who lived over 2,000 years ago in modern day Ireland, the UK, and northern France. The Celtic calendar ended on November 1st to signify the end of the harvest and the start of a dreary winter. The Celts associated winter with the death of human life and believed that the day before the new year, October 31st, was when the world of the living and the dead connected. They called this day “Samhain,” a Gaelic word pronounced “SAH-win”, and held festivities to celebrate the return of the dead back to Earth. The Celtics believed this reunion of life and death also made it easier for their Priests, also known as Druids, to make predictions about the upcoming winter. To commemorate this, giant bonfires were built to burn animals and crops as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. The Celts would adorn themselves in costumes of animal skins during the celebration, likely where modern day Halloween costumes came from.
By A.D. 43, the majority of Celtic territory had been conquered by The Roman Empire.
During the eighth century, Pope Gregory III established November 1st as All Saints Day. 200 years later, the church designated November 2nd as All Soul’s Day, also called All-hallows, to honor the dead. They kept many traditions of the original Celtic holiday, such as bonfires and costumes.
Early America was hesitant to accept the celebration of Halloween because of the prominent Protestant belief systems present at the time. By the middle of the 19th century, Autumn festivals had a strong presence, but Halloween was celebrated sparsely around the US. It wasn’t until the later half of the 19th century that the celebration grew—partly fueled by the rise of Irish immigrants due to the Potato Famine. Taking from European traditions, America began the ritual of dressing up and going house to house to ask for money or food. This tradition would later become what we know today as “trick-or-treating.”
At the turn of the century, Halloween became a much more community based holiday. Halloween parties became the most common way to celebrate the evening. A rise in censorship took most of the superstitious and religious aspects of Halloween away, in favor of a more family friendly event. The ‘20s and ‘30s saw a rise in Halloween parties and parades, accompanied by a much higher crime rate during the celebrations. By the ‘50s, community leaders had limited public celebrations due to the crime issues, thus directing the holiday more at children in their schools or homes. This is also when the practice of trick or treating was reestablished, bringing forth modern day Halloween! Without this deep history, October would just be PSAT month, thank you Celts!