History of Halloween
Each year on Halloween night, millions of children take to the streets in scary costumes to beg for treats at the doors of their neighbors. And millions of adults enjoy the holiday as a celebration of things that go bump in the night, and frighten the unwary.
Few, however, ever stop to wonder about the origins of the night, or of the creatures that seem to populate it.
Most sources trace Halloween’s origins to an ancient Celtic holiday called Samhain. The Celts were a group of people who lived in present day Ireland and England from about the 5th Century BC.
Samhain (pronounced sow-en) was an end of the summer commemoration that occurred near the end of October. October 31 is cited as the official end of summer, but since the present day Calendar was not in effect then, that is probably not a precise date.
The end of summer was a significant event for ancient peoples because it represented the end of warmth and sunlight, and times of plenty, and the entry into a time of shorter days, colder nights, and deprivation. And naturally, such dark times would be accompanied by dark spirits.
It is doubtful that anyone really knows how the Celts celebrated their holiday, but several stories have emerged.
One story says that the Celts believed that on Halloween night, the spirits of the people who had died in the previous year came back to the Earth, to search for a body to occupy. To avoid being possessed, the superstitious Celts would put out all the lights of their village in an attempt to convince the spirits that no one was at home. Then, the villagers would dress in costumes designed to trick the spirits into thinking that they, too were spirits, and thus not eligible to be possessed.
If all went well, the spirits would wander through the village, and see nothing but dark houses and other spirits. They would then wander off to another village.
In this legend, you can see the origins of several of the modern Halloween traditions: Ghosts (spirits of the dead) costumes and dark, empty houses.
As the night ended, the villagers found that they were without lights. They would then relight all of their hearth fires from a sacred bonfire maintained by their priests, the Druids.
A more gruesome version says that part of the bonfire ceremony involved the ignition of a young, innocent village girl. This, however, sounds more like Hollywood than History to me.
Another version - more pedestrian - is that the Celts celebrated their end of summer holiday with a huge bonfire built by the Druids. The villagers would put out their own fireplaces and gather to sacrifice crops and animals to the fire. Costumes of animals were worn to further honor the creatures that had blessed them throughout the summer’s bounty. Then, at the end, each family would relight their hearths from the sacred communal fire.
The Celts became one of many peoples conquered by the Romans in the early part of the first Century. The Romans were an adaptive people and happily incorporated local holidays, gods and traditions into their own. (That’s why so many Roman gods bear an uncanny resemblance to Greek ones; and why the Roman Empire was later able to shift from paganism to Christianity. If there was a better idea, they stole it.).
The Romans had their own fall harvest festival. One, for the Goddess Pomona celebrated the harvest of the fruit of the trees. Pomona’s symbol was the apple, which has led some scholar to speculate that this is the origin of the custom of bobbing for apples. (Whatever the origins, illustrations in medieval manuscripts show people bobbing for apples, so the custom dates to at least the dark ages.)
The Romans also had their own festival of the Dead, called Feralia, which was marked at the end of the Roman year, in February.
Christianity was introduced to the British Isles starting about the second century AD. Just as the Romans had been willing to adapt to local customs, so were the early Christian missionaries—many of whom were Roman (for example, early missionaries were willing to abandon the stricture that converts first become Jews when they ran across cultural barriers, and it is thought that the date of Christmas was selected to coincide with a Germanic winter festival.)
When the inhabitants of England and Ireland proved unwilling to abandon their late October festival, Christianity simply incorporated it.
In the 700s, Pope Boniface IV set November 1 as All Saints Day—a day to honor Saints and Martyrs. The day was also known as All Hallows, and the previous night, All Hallows Eve. November 2 was named All Souls Day, and was set aside to honor the souls of the dead. The three days together were called Hallow Mass.
All Hallows Eve, of course, was later corrupted into Halloween.
It is widely believed that Boniface IV did this to co-opt the pagan Celtic holdouts into Christianity.
It’s not too hard to imagine how the conversations went between early missionaries and the pagan villagers.
Village Chief (after listening to the missionary’s explanation of Christianity): Well, it all sounds very nice, but we really don’t want to give up costumes and bonfires and all the other stuff that goes with Samhain. It might all be superstition, but why take the chance …
Missionary (after thinking a bit): Did I say you had to give it up? By an amazing coincidence, it turns out that we Christians also have a holiday to honor the dead … and it’s on the same day! … and instead of one day … it’s three days!”
Halloween arrived in North America with the early colonists. However, because of the Puritan influence in New England, it was mostly confined to the Scots-Irish of the Southern Colonies.
Colonial Halloweens were essentially Harvest Festivals, with lots of eating and drinking, music, dancing, ghost stories and fortune telling (you can see why it didn’t catch on with the Puritans). Some more of our modern Halloween symbols were introduced at this time, as traditions were blended with Native American harvest festivals. Corn stalks and pumpkins - unknown in Europe before the discovery of North America - became part of Halloween imagery.
Halloween really arrived in America with the massive Irish immigration of the 1840s. The Irish brought their Halloween traditions with them and wove them into the fabric of American society.
Copyright 2005 by John Retzer. All Rights Reserved.