A password will be e-mailed to you.

Halloween: A Brief and Thorough History

To you, the holiday may mean a number of different things. You may get dressed up, go to a party, indulge in way too much candy, or even put on your favorite spooky flick. No matter what your favorite way to celebrate is, you may be surprised with how the annual holiday began. Samhain is a pagan religious festival originating from the ancient Celtic tradition. The people would welcome in the season of harvest, and commemorate the dark days to come in the following months.

Early Celtic Beliefs

Many of the Celtics believed that the barrier to the underworld would become breached at this time, leaving villages vulnerable to death and disease. To combat this issue, the Celts would dress as animals and monsters to further ward off ghosts. Some ancient texts from this period allude to six days of excess alcohol consumption, along with gluttonous feasting… so, not much different from how some college students choose to celebrate now. 

Depiction of Samhain Festival

The modern Halloween that we know now wouldn’t come till much later. By 43 A.D. the Roman Empire conquered much of modern Ireland, and their traditions would merge. Feralia was the day that the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. By the 9th Century, Christianity had spread into Celtic land and the traditions of All Saints’ Day further merged and spun itself with past traditions. Honoring the dead was the major theme of this Smorgasbord of traditions coming together. What would now be known as All Souls’ Day came with bonfires, parades and even dressing up as saints, devils and angels. 

Halloween in the United States

Because of the melting pot that was America in colonial times, traditions of the people began to mesh once again. Similar traditions to All Souls’ Day would be included as people began to share ghost stories, and celebrate the fall harvest. Borrowing from European tradition, Americans then began to dress in costumes by the early 1800’s.

Going house to house for food or money transformed into the commonly known “trick-or-treat” custom. The American tradition of carving pumpkins was first recorded in this time as well. Regardless, this time held onto many of its religious, and superstitious overtones until the early 1900’s. What followed would be a time of experimentation for the holiday as it began to take shape into what it’s known today.

Vandalism and pranks were a huge concern for town leaders, and therefore the holiday was limited in practice. By the 1950’s the problem of adolescent deviance was solved by introducing candy into the mix, and allowing small children to roam neighborhoods in search of a sweet treat. 

American Halloween, 1960’s

Halloween today is the second-largest commercial holiday in America after Christmas, and is one of the oldest holidays recorded to date. Many cultures would celebrate their holidays respectively- comparatively Día de Los Muertos which focuses largely on honoring the dead.

Across the World

Traditions of Día de Los Muertos differ greatly from Halloween in America, and although it is celebrated at the same time, it is not to be confused. In some European countries, Halloween has increased with popularity, and sees more and more young people engaging in activities like costume parties and spooky stories.

Halloween in Asia varies as well, but similarly in the last 30 or so years, has drawn influence from common American Traditions. Families may decorate their homes with toy bats, carved pumpkins, and honor the dead in their own ways.

No matter how you choose to celebrate the ancient holiday this year, you’ll surely have plenty to build on — maybe even start traditions of your own!