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A Brief History of Halloween

A decorative flourish.
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Every year on the night of October 31st, people dress up in costumes, carve pumpkins, watch horror movies, and go door to door shouting “Trick or treat!” It’s a night filled with spooky decorations, the unearthly cries of the restless dead, and a sense of mystery and excitement. This tradition is none other than Halloween, a holiday celebrated in various forms around the world. But where did Halloween originate, and how did it evolve into the modern celebration we know today? Come along with us as we take a brief journey through the history of Halloween.

Ancient Beginnings

The roots of Halloween can be traced back over 2,000 years to the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which began at sunset on October 31st and carried through to November 1. Samhain was celebrated by the Celts, who lived in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. It marked the official end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, a time often associated with death. 

 

It was believed that during this brief period, the veil between the living and the dead grew thin enough to allow spirits entry into the realm of the living. These dead, specifically the disembodied spirits of those who had died during the previous year, were said to roam the earth in search of living bodies to possess for the next year.

 

Those who didn’t want to be possessed by these lost souls took appropriate action by extinguishing the fires in their homes to make them cold and inhospitable, dressing up in ghoulish costumes made from animal heads and skins, and parading around making as much noise as possible to frighten away the spirits. Food and drink were left out for these costumed villagers, which likely accounted for their wild and crazy actions. Offerings of food and crops were also left out for the spirits (since Snickers and M&M’s were still a few thousand years off), and bonfires were lit in an attempt to ensure all were protected from supernatural harm.

It’s safe to assume that without the belief systems and superstitions of the ancient Celts, October 31st would probably be just another day. So the next time you hit up the Spirit Halloween near you, be sure to say a silent word of thanks to the Celts for being such historic party animals, and for being the originators of the coolest holiday on the calendar.

Christian Influence

In the 7th century AD, the Christian church (in typical fashion) sought to stamp out pagan festivals and replace them with Christian holidays. Armed with more gall than originality, the Christians tasked their earthly rep with handling the job, and in turn Pope Boniface IV established All Saints’ Day on November 1st, a day to honor saints and martyrs. The night before, October 31st, came to be known as All Hallows’ Eve, which eventually morphed into what we know as Halloween.

 

All Hallows’ Eve incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain, such as lighting bonfires and wearing costumes, but it also folded in a practice called “souling,” where people went all throughout the villages to collect “soul cakes”—cakes made from square pieces of bread with currants. These were offered to the Christians, who in exchange offered prayers for the dead. The more soul cakes given, the more prayers were said.

 

While this custom is thought to be where trick-or-treating originated, there are other theories. It’s also been said that the practice came from Britain, where it was known as “Mischief Night,” and that it may also have come from an old Irish peasant practice where people went from door to door to collect food and money in preparation for the festival of St. Columbkill.

Colonial America

Halloween made its way to North America in the same way that most generally awesome things do: through immigrants. In this case, the immigrants in questions were those of the European persuasion—in particular the Irish and Scottish—who fled to America in the 1840s during the great potato famine.

 

In colonial America, Halloween wasn’t widely celebrated due to the strict religious beliefs of early settlers (shocker, right?). But Halloween would not be silenced or repressed, and it stuck around. Eventually, it began to gain popularity, and by the 19th century, communities across the land began embracing its customs and traditions, throwing ghost stories and spooky pranks into the mix.

Halloween into the 21st Century

The Halloween we know today started to take shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It became a holiday characterized by community gatherings, raucous parties, and costumes and decorations of the dark and frightening sort. Trick-or-treating also came into its own during this time, having evolved from the earlier Christian practice of going door to door with clasped hands and open mouths, with costumed children knocking on doors begging for sweets and treats and all the dental decay that likely came as a result.

 

The 20th century saw the commercialization of the spooky season with the sale of Halloween costumes, all manner of wild and creepy decorations, and branded merchandise. Then along came Michael Myers with his stabby ways and set the world on its ear, launching an entirely new arm of the Halloween tradition. Today, for better or for worse, Halloween is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

 

While Halloween is most commonly associated with the United States, there are other similarly themed holidays in other cultures. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is a joyful and colorful celebration that pays respect to deceased loved ones. In China and other Asian countries, the Hungry Ghost Festival is observed with offerings to appease restless spirits.

 

Halloween has a rich and diverse history that spans thousands of years, originating from ancient Celtic traditions and evolving through the influence of Christianity and cultural exchange. Today, it is a beloved holiday that encourages people to embrace their creativity, indulge in probably far too much candy, and celebrate the spooky and mysterious side of life. Whether you’re carving pumpkins to make jack-o’-lanterns, attending costume parties, scaring yourself in front of your TV, or handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, Halloween continues to bring joy and excitement to people of all ages.

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