The Origins of Halloween


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The ancient Celts celebrating Samhain.

Millions of Americans are swarming to their local Starbucks for their limited edition pumpkin spice drinks, which are back for the 19th year in a row. This modern-day tradition signals to all that the autumn season is in full swing. As others are preparing their costumes and plans for Halloween on October 31, some may ask, “where did our present-day Halloween festivities come from?”

Halloween’s origins date back to ancient Celtic festivals, called Samhain. The festival took place on Nov. 1 and signaled the end of the year. The Celts lived 2,000 years ago in present-day Ireland. They believed during Samhain the walls between the ‘Overworld’ and the ‘Otherworld’ were broken, allowing interaction between humans and otherworldly spirits.

The Celts also believed that on this day, the Druids–or Celtic priests–were able to make clearer predictions about the future. For many, these predictions were a source of comfort for Celts to rely on during the cold, dark winter.

One of the traditions of Samhain was to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona was the apple, which is probably where our present-day tradition of bobbing for apples came from.

In the ninth century, Christianity spread into Celtic lands. Catholics named Nov. 2 All Saints’ Day to honor the dead. All Saints’ Day incorporated big bonfires, parades, and people dressing up as saints, angels, or devils. 

During these parades, it was common for a poor person to approach the wealthy and beg for food. The wealthy man would give the poor man pastries called soul cakes in exchange for the poor man promising to pray for the wellbeing of the wealthy man’s family. This tradition underwent many variations over time and was converted to gear towards children in the early 1900s into what we know today as trick-or-treating.

All Saints’ Day began to be referred to as All-hallows, and people started referring to Samhain as All-hallows Eve, then eventually Halloween.

Halloween was spread to America, but essentially only to Maryland and the Southern colonies, as the Northern colonies still held heavy Protestant beliefs. The first celebrations of Halloween in the American colonies included “play parties,” which celebrated the harvest. These parties included neighbors coming together to sing and dance, and they later adopted the practice of telling ghost stories.

At the turn of the 20th century, people did not necessarily dress up as something in particular like many do today; rather, the goal of costuming was just to conceal your identity creepily. In the 1920s–especially during the Great Depression–teenagers were known to conceal their identity and wreak havoc on Halloween night. This provided the exigence for adults to organize neighborhood activities such as trick-or-treating, haunted houses, and costume parties–as a way to contain the teenagers.

Today, one-quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is used for Halloween, adding up to a total of about $6 billion spent on Halloween candy each year.

A combination of both ancient and modern traditions from various cultures and belief systems comprise how we celebrate Halloween today!