by ALEX HAAS '21
As the weather starts to feel more like fall, many people begin to anticipate the fast-approaching Halloween season. As they prepare to dress up and decorate their homes, most do not know the history of Halloween and how it came to be a major international holiday.
Halloween is one of the world’s oldest celebrations, derived from ancient festivals and religious rituals. This day dates back 2,000 years ago to the Celts who lived in the area that is now the United Kingdom and northern France. They had a Celtic festival called Samhain to celebrate their new year on November 1st. It was a day that marked the end of summer and harvest and the beginning of a cold and dark winter. Celts believed that on October 31st, the night before the New Year, the worlds of the living and the dead merged and the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. To celebrate the New Year, Celts wore costumes, typically made of animal heads and skins, and tried to tell each others’ fortunes.
By 43 AD, Celtic territory had been conquered by the Roman Empire. Over the next 400 years of Roman occupation over Celtic territory, this traditional celebration of Samhain was combined with two Roman festivals. The first, Feralia, was a day in late October that honored the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomana, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. It is likely that Pomana influenced the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples.
The spread of Christianity into Celtic lands also influenced the history of Halloween. In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV established May 13 as the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day. Pope Gregory III expanded the day to include all saints in addition to martyrs, and moved the date from May 13 to November 1. All Saints’ Day was also called Alholowmesse, the Middle English name for the holiday, which is where the name Halloween is derived from.
Traditions of Halloween began to emerge in America as European colonists traveled to the New World. An Americanized version of Halloween began to come about as the different cultures of the European settlers and American Indians mixed. Colonial Halloween celebrations included public events to celebrate harvest time where people would tell each other ghost stories, and dance and sing. Although it was not celebrated nationally yet, Halloween gradually became a popular celebration in the mid-nineteenth century after the Irish Potato Famine brought millions of immigrants to America.
The belief that, on Halloween, spirits could come back from the dead to harm people and crops led to many of our current Halloween traditions. In an attempt to scare away these restless spirits, people would wear scary costumes such as monsters, ghosts, and devils.
Over time, Halloween has developed into a holiday centered on community and having fun. Although people still dress up in scary outfits, they also dress up as TV characters, celebrities, food, superheroes, and much more. Kids go trick-or-treating, teens watch horror movies and visit haunted houses, and homeowners typically pass out candy and try to scare their trick-or-treaters. It is a fun holiday that people of all ages love to celebrate, but not very many know its old yet interesting history.