A Different Kind of Blog

news and things sacred and irreverent put together by opinionated people.

The Origins of Halloween

Posted by dorian on October 31, 2009


Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).

The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.


Video: The haunting History of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween).

Video: Timothy Dickinson tells the intriguing tale of why we celebrate Halloween, and it’s evolution from Samhain, an ancient Celtic Harvest Festival.

The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints’ Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints’, All Saints’, and All Souls’, were called Hallowmas.

halloween-comestoamericaAs European immigrants came to America, they brought their varied Halloween customs with them. Because of the rigid Protestant belief systems that characterized early New England, celebration of Halloween in colonial times was extremely limited there.

It was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups, as well as the American Indians, meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.halloween-pumpkin-onsteps

In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors.

In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers, than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft.

Halloween Costumes

Video: Historical Halloween Costumes of the 1920s.

Video: New York’s Village Halloween Parade is one of the most unique Halloween Celebrations.

At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during this time. By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday.


Source: History.com


13 Responses to “The Origins of Halloween”

  1. dorian said

    i think i have to go for another candy run tomorrow before the little monsters come to the door. i ate a lot of the candy. (burp!!)
    happy halloween!!


  2. Hors Service said

    Happy Halloween!

    The celebrations of Christmas and some other religious festivals can also be dated back to pagan myths and so.

    But the celebrations of mothers (“fête des mères”), at least in France, is far more recent, invented by Petain and the governement of Vichy to create a patriotic and “traditional” enthusiasm for “mothers of future workers and soldiers of France”, make more children, and encourage the mothers to stay at home and don’t work, etc… This origin is a bit forgotten among frenchs.
    My grandmother said that she would kill me if I ever celebrate her for this day^^


  3. princessxxx said

    oh look everyone, kay stopped by my house trick or treating.
    how cute, she was a pointy headed ghost. i had to take a polaroid picture.

    kay you should use this picture for your gravatar. no need to thank me, it’s my pleasure.


  4. dorian said

    very funny, princess.
    i don’t think kay is kkk, she just hates liberals.

    now how did you put an image in your comment post? i’d like to do that too.


  5. 1minionsopinion said

    It’s snowing here today, which reminds me of all the years of snow suits covering our Halloween costumes. I was especially bummed the year I was a princess. I had a yellow dress and one of those long tall cone hats with a veil, just like Maid Marion or someone. Having to hide the whole outfit was depressing, but I was determined to go out and get candy anyway. My mom and aunt must have been crazy to bundle us up in all kinds of weather to visit neighbours.


  6. Princessxxx said

    oh, i thought she was a pinhead ghost.


  7. dorian said

    watching a ghost hunters marathon and tired of watching investigators tango and steve jump and scream at every spider, every bug they see. wassup with that!! pinhead ghost too funny. princess xtra notty today.

    i’m too lazy to go out tonight but i will dress up as a vampire rocker and try to scare some kiddies coming to my door…

    minion – you have all my favorite english candies there too don’t you – malteasers, cadbury eclairs, wunderbars, smarties..

    okay now i have to have one more kitkat bar and off to the supermarket i go.


  8. 1minionsopinion said

    I watched Ghosthunters last year when I went to a friend’s for a Samhain bonfire. It really sucked. They were running around the basement of some old building whispering while the camera filmed them all really grainy. And someone knocked a lamp over and blamed a ghost on it. It was so dumb, I got up and ate a mummy dog instead.


  9. 1minionsopinion said

    Oh Dorian, yes, we have Smarties and malteasers and proper digestives /tea biscuits with chocolate dip. We’re way high class on treats up here. heh.


  10. This is quite impressive, I am pleased to read this post, keep posts like this coming, you totally rock!


  11. couponboa said

    Excellent Read! More like the authority article I read at Wikipedia. Never ever did I care to gather history of Halloweens. I am surprised to find out the similarity in the way worship of ghosts/ evil spirits are celebrated almost during that time of the year in different other religions/ countries. Might be another interesting topic to explore someday.



  12. Eleanor said

    I’ve been researching hand-made clothes for my little girl lately, toying with the notion of creating her a little organic onesie since I’ve seen some terrific inspiration


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    The Origins of Halloween « A Different Kind of Blog


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