Halloween is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in America, with ghosts, ghasts, and ghoulish delights; trick-or-treating; and endless fun frights. But have you ever wondered how it originated? Have you ever asked yourself how Halloween became what it is today? If so, then read on, and discover the deep secrets behind our celebration of fearful fun!
It Began with the Celts
The very first incarnation of Halloween began with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-in). Samhain was celebrated on October 31st, and it marked the Celtic New Year; the ending of summer, the richness of harvest, and the beginning of the austerity of winter, which as long associated with death. During this time, the belief prevailed that the dead would return to the world of the living, and that they would cause blights to crops and livestock.
However, it was also believed that the presence of spirits enhanced the ability of people to fortune-tell. This, coupled with the stigma on supposed “magic” and paganism later on, led to the stigmatization of the iconic black cats, and the growing association of Samhain/Halloween with witchcraft.
To both prepare for the Celtic New Year and to ward off evil, the Celts held large bonfire parties. At these, they often dressed in costume to pretend to be spirits in order to ward off any malevolent spirits that might try to possess them for the coming year. To increase the chances of warding away harm, they also danced around the bonfires, and sacrificed and burned crops and livestock as offerings to both the benevolent spirits that might walk among them, and their deities.
The Romans Added to It
When the Romans conquered Celtic lands, they brought their own festivals to their new territory. Two of these festivals contributed to the direction Samhain would further develop.
The first was the festival of Feralia. This celebration specifically commemorated the passing of the deceased, and increased Samhain’s connection with the dead and death. It also linked it to festivals to come, such as the Christian festivals All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day.
The second was the festival of Pomona, a Roman goddess who ruled over fruit trees and their fruit. It has been speculated among scholars that the incorporation of this aspect into Samhain led to traditions such as bobbing for apples. And, of course, added further connection to the harvest and the passing abundance of the previous year’s growth.
Then Christianity Inserted Its Influence
Christianity became notorious throughout history for adopting pagan traditions in order to convince more to convert (certain aspects of Christmas, such as the decorating of a pine tree, are another example). Initially, the early Christian missionaries to the Celtic lands attempted to replace the pagan Samhain with the approved festival of All Saints’ Day, which is celebrated on the first of November.
Then, many changes occurred. The church, again, attempted to smother out Samhain, this time by adding All Souls Day on November 2nd. The purpose of this festival was to honor all of the dead (not just saints and martyrs). Still, All Souls Day retained a great deal of the original Samhain traditions, from bonfires to costumes.
At this point, the name of Halloween also developed. It derived in part from the medieval name of All Saints’ Day, which was All Hallows’ Day; the day before All Hallows’ Day was called All Hallows’ Eve, which ultimately transformed into the name it is known by today: Halloween.
What About the Jack-O’-Lantern?
The iconic carved pumpkin lit by a candle which we all know and love has its own history that cumulates into its current popular form—in America.
It began with the ancient Celtic practice of sometimes carving ghoulish faces into large turnips and similar vegetables, like potatoes and beets, and hanging these creations around homes in the hopes of scaring off the perceived ghouls.
This practice was enhanced by the Irish myth of “Stingy Jack,” a legendary figure said to have tricked the Devil twice and made him swear to never take his soul. When Stingy Jack died, he was barred from Heaven, and then locked out of Hell due to his past bartering. Therefore, he was cast out as a wandering spirit, given only a single lantern to guide him; his new name, “Jack-of-the-Lantern,” is said to have evolved into our modern “jack-o’-lantern” name.
The Irish furthered jack-o’-lanterns, bringing Halloween celebrations and practices to America during their waves of immigration. Upon discovering the pumpkin, a native plant to America, and a very large and suitable carving canvas, jack-o’-lantern carving quickly surged in popularity.
The rest, as you might say, is history.
Although Halloween has gained comparatively recent attention and popularity in the United States, as it began to really surge around the 1920s when parties—including costume parties—and the associated candies and treats became a huge hit, Halloween is by no means a recent creation. It has evolved over literally thousands of years. It began as an ancient celebration of the dead, as well as both good and evil spirits; it survived the influence of the Romans, the tinkering of Christianity; and it continued on to become a festival of the dead and of good and evil spirits, with a modern flare and a popularity boom.
For further exploration into Halloween history, visit any of these links: