The History of Halloween


For most of us, Halloween brings to mind costumes, candy, and pumpkins. But the popularized American holiday has a long and complicated history that very few know about.

Original Halloween: Samhain
Many historians assert that the concept of Halloween began about 2,000 years ago with a Celtic festival called Samhain. The Celtic people, who inhabited the land that is now Ireland, the UK and northern France, identified November 1st as the new year. This day meant the end of the bountiful summer harvest season and the beginning of cruel winters in which many often died. On the night before November 1st — the holiday called Samhain — Celtic people believed that the ghosts of dead people returned to earth to cause trouble.

To celebrate Samhain, Celtic priests built enormous bonfires and burnt animals and crops as a sacrifice to their gods. Many people wore costumes to these gatherings, often dressed in animal heads and skins.

A Merging of Cultures
This festival evolved over the next 400 years as the Roman Empire took over Celtic territory and cultures merged. Samhain was combined with the Roman Feralia festival, during which Romans honored their dead. Some also say that the Roman holiday celebrating Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees whose symbol is the apple, influenced Samhain as well, and eventually resulted in the modern tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.

Christian Influence
Hundreds of years later, Pope Boniface IV established All Martyrs Day on May 13, 609 A.D. Pope Gregory III then expanded this holiday to include saints — changing the name to All Saints’ Day — and moved it to November 1. Christianity became more popular in the Celtic world throughout the 9th century. In an effort to replace the Samhain festival, which the church perceived as pagan and sacrilegious, the church established All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. This day was also meant to honor the dead and often celebrated with bonfires, costumes, and parades.

The Word “Halloween”
The development of the word “Halloween” is hard to track, much like any language development. In Middle English, the word for All Saints’ Day was Alholowmesse. The day was also called All-hallows, and All-hallowmas. October 31st — the night before All Saints’ Day — was called All-hallows Eve and this eventually grew into the word Halloween. It’s probable that there were many variations in between these words before the modern phrase was solidified.

Halloween in America
While early colonists in New England didn’t celebrate Halloween because of their stern religion, the holiday traveled over to America with the more relaxed southern colonies. Early celebrations were focused around the harvest and evolved to include ghost stories and pranks. It wasn’t until the second part of the 19th century that American immigrants — many of them Irish with Celtic roots — made Halloween a popular holiday nationwide. Costume-clad individuals began the trick-or-treat tradition by going door to door and asking for handouts.

The holiday still had a pagan, mischievous leaning to it and efforts were made in the late 1800s to get away from that. Halloween parties started to bring communities together around seasonal food and fun costumes. By the 1920s, Halloween had become a secular holiday and no longer carried religious or superstitious meaning for America. Halloween is now the country’s second largest commercial holiday, with an estimated $75 billion spent on the holiday annually.

Information sourced from

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