Between costumes, candy, and decorations, Halloween is second only to Christmas as America’s biggest spending holiday. While many people love Halloween, few know its actual roots. Did you know the traditions and history of Halloween predate even the first colonial settlers in this country? In fact, it may be one of the few major holidays Americans celebrate that can be traced back to pagan roots. How well do you know the history of Halloween?
About 2,000 years ago, the Celts lived in the region we now know as Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France. They celebrated their new year on November 1st. It was a day that marked the end of the summer and the harvest, a time of light, life, and plenty. It also marked the beginning of winter, a time of darkness and scarcity that was generally associated with human death.
The 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 31st, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to walk the earth, they celebrated the holiday Samhain. They had feasts, lit bonfires, left offerings of food and wine on their doorsteps to appease any traveling spirits, and practiced “guising,” or dressing oneself in a costume to mask one’s identity. This was thought to help shield them from any vengeful or angry spirits. Other Celts welcomed visits from friends or loved ones who had passed on by setting a place for them at the feasting table.
By 43 AD, the powerful Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. They ruled Celtic lands for centuries to follow. In that time, it’s believed that two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the pagan festival of Samhain. One was Feralia, which is a day in late October where the Romans would traditionally commemorate the passing of the dead. The other was a day honoring Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. As her name might suggest, the symbol for Pomona is the apple. The incorporation of this day with Samhain may explain the source of the traditional game of bobbing for apples.
By the 9th century, Christian influence had firmly rooted itself in Celtic lands. Over this great expanse of time, Christian tradition had gradually blended with, and eventually entirely supplanted, the pagan Celtic tradition. November 1st was now All Saints Day, to honor all the Christian saints, and November 2nd was now All Souls Day, a day to honor all the dead.
Today, it’s widely believed that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic day of the dead with a related, church-approved holiday in an effort to indoctrinate the Celtic people to Christian beliefs. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain. Both had big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes. All Saints Day was also called All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas. Thus, the night before All Saints Day, the traditional night of Samhain, began to be referred to as All Hallows Eve and then, eventually, Halloween.
Coming to America
The celebration of Halloween was very limited in colonial New England. The rigid belief system of the early Protestant settlers would not allow for any celebration of any holiday with pagan roots. To Protestants, pagan beliefs were akin to the Devil himself. Halloween celebrations were much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. There, the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups meshed with those of the American Indians. A distinctly American version of the holiday emerged.
The first celebrations included public parties held to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell fortunes, dance, and sing. Elders would tell ghost stories to children and the young would partake in mischief-making of all kinds. However, these celebrations were not yet nationwide.
19th and 20th Century
In the second half of the 19th century, America opened her gates to a flood of immigrants. Among these immigrants was the large population of Irish that were fleeing their homeland’s potato famine. These Irish immigrants helped popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Americans now took part in the Irish and English traditions, dressing up in costumes and going from house to house to sing a song or enact some scene in exchange for food or money. This popularized the tradition of “trick-or-treating,” though the practice could actually be sourced back to its inception in the early All Souls Day parades in England and Ireland.
At the turn of the century and into the first half of the 1900s, there was a move to mold Halloween into more of a secular, community-centered festival. Many of the overarching religious and spiritual themes were removed. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. However, vandalism at the hands of the young began to plague many communities during this time.
By the mid-1900s, adults put the focus of the holiday onto children. Having the children dress up in costumes and go from house to house for treats and candy was a simple, inexpensive way for the entire community to celebrate the holiday. In addition, plying the children with treats meant they were less likely to enact any mischief. Over time, the traditions of the history of Halloween began to seep back into its celebration. While the holiday is rarely used to celebrate the harvest anymore, the old pagan superstitions and spiritual motifs have returned. Rather than simply dressing in festive clothing, children now “guise” as witches, spirits, demons, and more.
Celebrate the History of Halloween
Though Halloween as we know it went through many forms and alterations over the years, it’s one of the few holidays with pagan roots to still exist in popular culture to this day. The history of Halloween is certainly an interesting one and there’s much more that can be learned about it. So when you begin your Halloween preparations later this year, remember that you’re actually taking part in one of the oldest holiday traditions ever to exist.
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