The History of Halloween
When we think about October, we envision a month full of ghosts, scary movies, and fall. From pumpkin carving to candy, there’s enough for everyone to love. These traditions are all related to Halloween, the secular holiday that falls on October 31st. Instead of being invented by one group or country like most holidays, Halloween comes from a long history of combining traditions, holidays, and cultures. But how does this mismatch of traditions lead to a day of candy, costumes, and frights? This is the lesser-known origins of Halloween.
Samhain and the Celts
Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celts, a kingdom inhabiting present day Ireland, England, and northern France over 2,200 years ago. The Celts celebrated the new year on November 1st, which also marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The day before this change, on October 31st, the Celts believed the barrier between the living and the dead became blurred. They called this day Samhain.
Samhain began with carving faces on turnips and placing them outside of houses to ward off the spirits. Fires were put out, and their embers were placed into these turnips to act as lanterns. People would go from house to house in disguises, or costumes, reciting religious verses in exchange for food. The Celts also used this day to attempt to read fortunes to determine how harsh the winter would be and who would survive the cold season ahead.
Romans, Pomona, and Feralia
Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire conquered the Celts and absorbed most of their culture. Samhain was combined with the Roman fertility festival of Pomona, creating Feralia. Pomona’s addition to this mix added another layer on the fortune telling aspect of Samhain, as people became more interested in their fates and possible lovers than mere survival. Pomona also added wild parties and feasts to a holiday that was normally somber to commemorate the dead. Feralia combined these two holidays and their traditions.
Pope Boniface and All Saint’s Day
Fast forward a few hundred years, and the Roman Empire had become mostly Catholic. Pope Boniface IV created All Saint’s Day on November 1st to celebrate all the saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church. Feralia would be held the day before, on October 31st, and renamed All Saint’s Eve. The new religious meaning helped All Saint’s Eve survive the fall of the Roman Empire and the middle ages. During this period, translation issues changed All Saint’s Eve to All Hallow’s Eve, then to All Hallow’s Ween, before finally being anglicized to Halloween.
Modern Changes to Halloween
In the 20th century, the American public began widely celebrating Halloween. Children were encouraged to follow the Celtic tradition of going door to door begging for food by replacing the food with candy. The adults left alone began throwing wild Halloween parties. The religious overtones of the holiday were stripped away in this period, along with most of the superstitious beliefs that came with it. Halloween became the pumpkin-carving, party-throwing, candy-eating holiday we know and love today.