The History of Halloween
Fynn Grindle, Staff Writer
From ancient Celtic rituals to bobbing for apples and elaborate costume parties, the progression
of Halloween into America’s modern-day celebration is as diverse as it is widespread.
Unlike its popularity today, Halloween in its earliest stage was more culturally niche and
religiously purposeful. Predominately in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, nearly 2000 years ago, the Celts celebrated Samhain (pronounced sow-in) on Nov. 1 to commemorate the new year, the end of the harvest, and the start of the winter season. During this time, the boundary between the living world and the dead was believed to thin, aiding divination practices, as well as enabling spirits, both friendly and malicious, to reenter the realm of the living. In order to deter any unwanted sprites, Celtic priests known as Druids built large bonfires, while individuals donned costumes and dedicated sacrifices of crops and animals to their deities.
Years later, by 43 A.D., the Roman Empire expanded into Celtic territory, merging some of their
observances with the Celts’ traditions, many of which were also associated with the dead. For example, during Feralia (Feb. 21), Romans honored the spirits of those lost, while during Parentalia (Feb. 13-21), they toasted their ancestors. Ultimately, the two led to the development of Lemuria (May 9, 11, and 13), dedicated to appeasing the dead. Additionally, a festival honoring the goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona, joined with the customs of Samhain.
However, with the growth of Christianity’s power in the Roman Empire, the Pantheon becoming
dedicated to all Christian martyrs, and its subsequent dominion of Celtic lands, Samhain was stripped of its original pagan symbols and rituals. Pope Gregory III moved All Saints’ Day from May 13 to Nov. 1. with Oct. 31 being named All-Hallows Eve, celebrated in a similar fashion to Samhain, but with renewed intentions. According to the World History Encyclopedia, “Bonfires were still lighted– only now in honor of Christian heroes– and the turning of the seasons was still observed– only now to the glory of Christ. The [poor] would go about knocking on doors asking for a soul cake in return for prayers.”
During the early 19th century, All Hallows Eve and All Saints’ Day lacked popularity amongst
the American and British colonies. It was only until the later rise in immigration of Irishmen fleeing the Potato Famine did the festival gain purchase. This movement also introduced the jack o’ lantern, an Irish tradition of carving a turnip and placing a candle within for protection while out on All Hallows Eve, driven by the Irish folk tale of Stingy Jack and will-o-the-wisps.
As Americans integrated practices of dressing up and trick-or-treating into the 20th century,
Halloween transformed into a secular community-based activity despite struggles with vandalism. Centering more heavily around the young, Halloween today is a great commercial success; each year Americans invest about $6 billion in sum on the holiday, spending just shy of $500 million on costumes for their pets alone in 2021 (HISTORY).
Though the day reflects a different world compared to when Samhain was first observed, some
modern Wiccans and Witches still strive to celebrate the holiday as true to its origins as possible. For others, Halloween offers its own unique, fantastical appeal. According to American Heritage, “For one single night, we can star in the roles of our choice. The secret of Halloween’s success is that it is more than a holiday. It is a brief and titillating vacation from our lives and ourselves.”
*All information from HISTORY, American Heritage, and the World History Encyclopedia
*Photography of Cat at Full Moon, Pixabay, Pexels (Fair Use)