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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

Episode 27: The History of Halloween

Happy Halloweekend, witches and trolls.

I come to you bearing gifts. Gifts of knowledge. Gifts of wisdom. Gifts, of the history of Halloween.

Halloween is celebrated, as most of us know, on October 31. The tradition originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-hin or hah-wen), where bonfires were lit for sacrifices and costumes were worn to ward off the bad spirits. This was the Celts' New Year's Eve celebration- the new year was November 1. This timing marked the official end of summer and the harvest, and the beginning of the dark and the cold. Winter, for the Celts, was associated with human death.

Especially emblematic, this day- their new year’s night, was believed to be the night of the year when the boundary between the worlds, the veil between the living and the dead and the other realms, became blurred. "The veil is the thinnest", I was always taught. So, on the night of Samhain, the Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead (and otherworldly creatures) were able to find their way to our earthly plane.

Fun fact: I learned in Ireland itself, from an old Irishman- in Gaelic, Samhain is pronounced hahwen- so it makes sooooo much sense that hahwen in Gaelic and Hallow’s e’en in English were slurred together in such a way to become Halloween. The spelling, of course, is Gaelic though (since its originally a Celtic holiday) so it has to be weird as hell.

Anyway, so the Celts wanted to ward off these spirits to keep them from causing trouble, haunting them, damaging their crops, etc. But, they also believed that the presence of otherworldly spirits allowed the Druids- essentially the Celtic priest class- to make predictions about the future which was suuuuuper important due to the Celts' reliance on nature. These prophecies gave them the ability to plan and hope through the winter in a time before technology, when the volatility of nature was truly unpredictable.

As a way of celebrating and commemorating the new year, the Druids themselves would build these huge sacred bonfires where the Celts would gather to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to their deities. And, like i mentioned earlier, they wore costumes- usually made up of animal heads and skins and they attempted to tell each others fortunes. The costumes were a means to disguise themselves from the ghosts- to keep from being recognized as amongst the living. They believed the dead would see these masks and mistake them for fellow spirits. (Wonder where this goes later?)

Upon the end of the celebration, the Celts would return home to their previously extinguished hearth fires and re-light the hearth with flames from the sacred bonfire. This ritual was meant to protect them through the coming winter. Personally, I love this. So symbolic.

By 43 AD, the Roman Empire had (tragically, if you ask me) conquered the majority of Celtic territory. Over the roughly 400 years that they ruled over the Celtic lands, two different Roman festivals were combined with Samhain. First, Feralia was a day in late October when the Romans would traditionally commemorate the passing of the dead. (Why are all of the days of the dead in October?) The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees- and her symbol is an apple, which quite explains the tradition of bobbing for apples, don’t you think?

In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the pantheon in Rome to honor ALL Christian martyrs (I bet the old gods weren’t thrilled with that one, huh). This celebration was later expanded in the eight century, when November 1 was designated by Pope Gregory III as a day to honor all of the saints, together- or, All Saints Day. Very quickly, All Saints Day began to incorporate Samhain traditions, as is so so common- and before you knew it, the evening before became name as Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.

In just a few centuries Christianity would be widespread into the Celtic lands, where Christianity gradually blended with ancient Celtic rituals and gods. Many of the Celtic gods were made Catholic saints, actually- my favorite has always been the goddess Bridget, the goddess of the hearth, the forge and warfare. She is still considered a saint, which is important, because it maintains ancient connections to the people ya know?

Anyway, the church later made November 2 "All Soul’s Day", a day to honor the dead, which is today believed to have been an attempt to supplant Samhain with a church-sanctioned holiday. It was to be celebrated similarly, with bonfires and dressing up in costumes. Obviously this didn’t really catch on as a huge thing for November 2, BUUUUUT it made All Hallow’s Day a bigger deal I think, and then that made All Hallow’s Eve a bigger deal. Funny the way these things can backfire.

Now remember- in case you’ve missed it, all of this was in Europe. In the new world, America, Halloween was very much a regional thing for a long time. In New England it was NOT common because of the very rigid Protestantism there. In Maryland, though, and the southern colonies (many of whom were heavily colonized by the descendants of the ancient Celts) Halloween was more common. Isn't that kind of funny, that New England was essentially devoid of Halloween originally? Now we have such an association of it with Halloween because of the Salem Witch Trials, Hocus Pocus, Casper the Ghost!

Then as the different European and Native ethnic groups and cultures melded, the American version of Halloween began to become more distinct. Events held to celebrate the harvest included sharing ghost stories, telling fortunes, dancing and singing. Very similar to the original version of Samhain, right? Funny how these things have a habit of repeating. These autumnal festivities were very common by the mid 1800s, but Halloween itself was still a regional celebration.

In the second half of the 19th century, America experienced a surge of new immigrants. Millions of these immigrants included the Irish as they fled the Potato Famine, which helped the popularization of Halloween on a national scale. Isn’t that crazy, that the Potato Famine essentially gave us Halloween as we know it in America?

As we often do, we borrowed from the European tradition of dressing in costumes to go from house to house asking for food or money- a weird one, if you ask me, but this is obviously the beginning of what we know as trick or treating. In addition, veryyyyyy similar to the belief that the ancient druids could foretell the future on Samhain, young women believed that on Halloween they could divine their future husband’s name or facing using tricks with yarn or apple peels. Like I said it literally is all repeating itself.

Now, it is important to note this and I actually had no idea- the trick or treating tradition in England likely began with early versions of the All Soul’s Day celebrations, where the poor would beg for food and wealthier families would give out pastries called “soul cakes” in return for the promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. This was encouraged by the church as a replacement for the ancient practice of leaving food and wine out for the roaming spirits- to appease them and prevent them from entering the home. This cake distribution- you know the church sanctioned version- it was eventually taken up by children who would go about to houses and be given these little gifts. Which I guess is kind of less weird when you look at the development of it but still I’m unsure- sending your kid out to ask for money feels weird. But also sending your kid to strangers to ask for candy is weird so whatever.

Then, in the late 1800s there was a move to make Halloween more about the community and get-togethers than about ghosts and witchcraft, so Halloween parties became the most common way to celebrate- focusing on festive costumes and themed games and seasonal foods. Because of this, and community and media working together to urge adults to remove the "scary" and "grotesque" features of Halloween, it lost most of its superstitious and religious underpinnings by the early 1900s. This led to Halloween becoming secular, but very community inspired, with trick or treat and parades and town wide parties. The trick or treat practice had actually fell out of practice at some point, and between the 1920s and '50s it was revived as a pretty inexpensive form of community celebration. Plus, the trick or treat moniker- you give them a treat, so they don’t play a trick on you- it was kind of like tithing, or bribing young people not to use the holiday as an excuse to vandalize.

Thus, the American version of Halloween was born and developed, and today it is the second largest commercial holiday, only after Christmas.

Blog and pod sources:


Pagan beginnings

Ancient Celts

Church tried to replace it

Communities in America secularized it

Lost religious overtones

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