Halloween Origins: The History of Halloween


The origins of Halloween have been around for a while, but the day went by several names and traditions before settling on the popular trick-or-treating holiday we know today. The origins can be traced back to the Celtic festival, Samhain. This holiday was the Celtic end-of-the-year, after their harvest and before the winter months came. It was meant as a time to reflect on life and death, including those who were lost over the past year. Samhain was held on November 1st and the evening before the festival was known as All Hallows Eve, which would eventually be called Halloween.

The supernatural superstitions and ideals of the holiday mark back to the time of the Celts. It was believed that the real world and the afterworld merged the evening before the new year, causing spirits to roam on earth. Due to this spiritualism, the Celtic people would try to foresee the future with the help of the dead. The Celtics also burned bonfires in commemoration of the day, something that would be associated with the autumn holiday for years.

By 1000 A.D., the pagan Celtic holiday was eventually morphed into All Saints’ Day. It is believed that this was Christianity’s attempt to make the traditional holiday suit the Christian religion that a lot of Celts converted to. All Saints’ Day was created to celebrate the Christian martyrs and saints and another new holiday, All Souls’ Day, was for praying for the souls of the dead. This went off the life and death ideal of All Hallows Eve. This new celebration was held in similar ways as the pagan festival, such as still using bonfires. It was this Christian holiday that would later be rebranded as Halloween.

Trick-or-Treating and Other Traditions

Trick-or-treating has been updated for modern society, but the idea of it has been around for a while. The going from door-to-door idea comes from All Souls’ Day. This was a day to celebrate and pray for the dead. The poor people would go from door to door for soul cake pastries. The wealthier neighbors would give the people the cake in exchange for a prayer for their dead relatives. This practice was referred to as “going a-souling”. Before this tradition, people left out food and wine for the spirits that were said to roam the world on the holiday. The tradition of souling was, instead, intended for children and less supernatural.

The idea of the dead roaming earth on Halloween also started the costume trend in America. Originally, people wore masks to disguise their faces to avoid seeing ghosts when outside on the autumn night. It was believed that if they could disguise themselves to look like part of the dead, the ghosts would leave them alone.

Halloween Americanized

When the colonies were first founded, the celebration of Halloween was limited to the South, since the New England area was very religious and strict. In its early days in America, the holiday was mainly used to tell fortunes and ghost stories. It reached more areas when immigrants from countries such as Ireland, that celebrated the holiday from its beginning, continued to practice the festivities here.

Halloween parties, however, didn’t become a holiday standard until around the 1920s and 1930s. The party games, however, such as bobbing for apples, are old traditions associated with Halloween. Originally, it was believed that the first person to pick an apple during the game would be the first one to marry. A lot of earlier traditions associated with the origins of Halloween dealt with fortune-telling for young women about future spouses. For instance, one dealt with standing in a mirror with a candle. If you looked over your shoulder, you were supposed to see the face of the person you would marry. The holiday was eventually targeted towards younger children when there was a baby boom after WWII. Doing this also limited the vandalism issues that would occur on the holiday.

The idea of mischief on Halloween is not something new. The idea of pranking someone is referenced by saying, “trick-or-treat”, meaning that a house or family will be victim to pranks if a treat isn’t given. Today, it’s more of a saying than an actual meaning.

Fun Halloween Facts

Jack-o’-Lanterns – Jack-o’-lanterns were traditionally turnips. The legend is about a man named Jack stuck in purgatory after making a deal with the devil. By lighting a turnip like a lantern, it was believed that such light would help souls stuck in purgatory find a resting place. The tradition was switched to pumpkins when it was discovered that they were easier to carve.

Candy Corn – Candy corn was originally marketed as “Chicken Feed” with a rooster logo.

Black Cats – The superstition about black cats is associated with witches. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that witches would disguise themselves as black cats, which is why people didn’t want to cross their path.

Candy – Due to the popular demand of candy, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday after Christmas. Americans spend approximately $6 billion on the holiday.

Witches – Witches were originally not seen as evil creatures. The name comes from the Saxon word “wica”, meaning “wise one”. They handled medicines and charms until superstitions grew that they could cast spells. These legends spilled over to American culture by the early settlers.

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Origins of Halloween Sources:

  1. Halloween: The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows: https://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween-santino.html
  2. The History of Candy Corn: https://www.bhg.com/halloween/recipes/the-history-of-candy-corn/
  3. Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time: https://books.google.com/books?id=hHVbAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA166#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. Hallowtide: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk
  5. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night: https://books.google.com/books?id=stWZ_UDteMIC&pg=PA22#v=onepage&q&f=false
  6. Halloween 2020: https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween
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