Celebrating the Dead – A Short History of Halloween

History of Halloween
Halloween is a holiday observed by many people around the world. It is a time for dressing up in costume, carving pumpkins, and taking part in a host of other traditions. It all can seem a bit silly when you really think about it. So why do we do it? Why do we celebrate Halloween? It turns out, the holiday’s origins go way back. Here is a short history of Halloween.

History of Halloween

It is widely believed that Halloween has its origins in an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced ‘sah-win’ or ‘sow-in’). The Celts lived about 2,000 years ago in the region that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, and Samhain is a Gaelic word that roughly translates to ‘summer’s end’.

Ancient records are sparse, but Samhain is believed to have been an annual communal meeting that marked the end of summer and the harvest, and the beginning the new year. It also signaled the beginning of winter – a time of year often associated with death. When Samhain rolled around, it was time to start gathering supplies for the winter ahead.

Samhain was also thought to be a time when spirits could return to earth. According to Celtic beliefs, the boundary between the living world and the dead opened on the night before the new year. Celts believed that during this time, they could communicate with the dead.

Though there is no historical consensus on exactly how Samhain was celebrated, it is believed that Druids, or Celtic priests, built large sacred bonfires. Communities would gather to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic gods, and people attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. Costumes were also part of the celebration, with the Celts dressing in animal heads and skins during the festivities.

As with many traditions, Samhain was influenced over time by outside forces. In the 1st century A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered much of the Celtic territory, and as a result, Roman festivals began to mesh with Samhain. One such holiday was Feralia, a day when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. And a second was a celebration of the Roman goddess Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees, whose symbol was an apple.

Christian Influence

The Pantheon in Rome was dedicated in honor of all Christian martyrs by Pope Boniface on May 13, 609 A.D, and a Catholic feast called All Martyrs Day was established. Pope Gregory III would eventually move the observance of this holiday to November 1st. In addition, he broadened the holiday to include all saints as well, and it came to be called All Saints’ Day.

Christianity had spread across much of Europe by the 9th century. Celtic rituals and rites began to fade away, with Christian traditions taking their place. In the 11th century, the Catholic church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day. It was meant to be a holiday to honor the dead, though some scholars speculate that the church was directly trying to replace the Celtic Samhain with a church-approved event.

There is no denying that All Souls’ Day had much in common with Samhain. Bonfires were still lit, and costumes were still worn, though people began dressing as saints, angels, and devils this time around. All Saints’ Day continued to be observed the day before, and was called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from the Middle English word for All Saints’ Day – Alholowmesse). As such, the night before All Saints’ Day came to be called All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

Halloween in the USA

While Europe had a long history of various holidays celebrating the dead, Halloween was slow to catch on in the New World. In much of colonial America, strict religious beliefs prevented many from celebrating the occasion. America has always been a land of immigrants, however, and as more European ethnic groups began to come to America, their traditions (as well as those of Native Americans), began to combine into a uniquely American version of Halloween.

Early Halloween celebrations in America included public events centered around the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, try and read fortunes, dance and sing. Ghost stories and various forms of mischief-making, or tricks, became more common. However, while fall-time festivities were prevalent by the middle of the 19th century, Halloween still was not universally celebrated.

That began to change in the later part of the century, when America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially Irish men and women fleeing the potato famine, helped Halloween spread across the country.

Today, Halloween has become a secular holiday celebrated by many people across the globe. Many of the traditions and customs associated with our current Halloween celebrations have their roots in ancient European holidays and festivals. Now the next time you find yourself at a Halloween party, you can drop some knowledge on the history of Halloween to really impress your friends.

Will you be trick-or-treating on Halloween this year? Before you do, make sure to earn this spooky badge – Trick or Treat

Mark Heald

Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 152 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.

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