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Halloween's Ancient Origins

Oct 15th, 2021

Halloween imagery usually consists of candy corn, jack-o-lanterns, ghostly figures and trick-or-treaters. But did you know that this scary season is heavily steeped in ancient Celtic traditions? 

Here’s the origin story of this popular modern holiday and the many traditions surrounding it. And who knows, maybe it will make October 31 that much scarier!

The origins of Halloween

Celtic origins

To understand the roots of this spooky holiday, we have to travel back in time to ancient Celtic traditions that date back as far as the Iron Age!

Between 300 and 100 B.C., the Celts populated most of the modern-day United Kingdom and portions of northern Europe, where they lived, farmed and built towns and communities. 

The Celts, as well as many other Neo-Pagan believers today, followed a calendar known as the Wheel of the Year, which is based on the cyclical pattern of time and is marked by the equinoxes and solstices throughout the year. This cyclical perspective on life and time also included light and dark halves of the year, representing the natural states of beginning and end and the need for a balance of both in everything. The festival of Samhain, celebrated on October 31, marked the transition between the two halves and, according to historians, the beginning of the Celtic New Year.

Pronounced “SAH-win” and translated as “summer’s end,” Samhain was a multi-day fire festival that celebrated the transition between light and dark, one year and the next and even the very veil between life and death. It was here that the living paid homage to their deceased ancestors long gone, as well as loved ones who had died in the past year. It was also a time to settle debts, resolve arguments and start the new year fresh.

Since the veil between life and death was believed to be thinnest during Samhain, it was also the time where spirits of the deceased were able to pass into the mortal world to roam once again. Festival-goers wore animal skins and furs to disguise themselves from evil spirits or the spirits of those who had been wronged, and large bonfires were kept burning to drive evil away from the living. Children would play pranks on others and blame mischievous spirits for causing the ensuing chaos, and people carved gourds into lanterns, feasted on the fruits of the recent harvest and offered sacrifices to the spirits for a fruitful year ahead. 

Roman Catholic influence

As the rapidly expanding Roman empire took control of Northern Europe, so did their beliefs invade the cultures and communities around them, and by 43 A.D. nearly all the Celts had been conquered by the Romans. 

The 7th century saw the Catholic Church’s rise to power in what was once Celtic land, and many local and pagan traditions were reframed to fit the Church’s narrative in order to persuade people to convert. Samhain was restructured as All Saint’s Day or All Hallows Day — a celebration of past saints and martyrs foundational in the church’s history. Rather than offering food sacrifices to pagan gods, the Church celebrated All Saints Day by donating food to the poor and attributing pranks on the gentle saints who were being celebrated. 

The celebration of All Saints Day/All Hallows Day was held on November 1, so October 31 soon became known as All Hallows’ Eve or All Hallows ‘een (meaning “evening”). Thus, Halloween was born.

Protestant colonists settle in North America

Halloween’s popularity in North America hit a wall when protestant colonists arrived in the New World in the 17th century. These protestants abstained from celebrating Catholic holidays, as The Protestant Reformation as a whole rejected the reverence to which rituals and traditions were held in the Catholic faith. This perspective extended to pagan festivals and beliefs, too, but a few elements of harvest celebrations still managed to worm their way into protestant life. 

Irish immigrants arrive in the U.S.A.

The 1840s saw an influx of immigrants to the United States from Ireland as a result of the devastating potato famine. These Irish immigrants brought the Catholic holidays and harvest traditions with them, such as bobbing for apples and playing pranks on neighbors. 

Harvest time in the United States soon featured children roaming the streets in costumes, exchanging songs, dances and jokes for pieces of fruit or small change. By the early 1900s, pranks and tricks were commonplace around Halloween, and the mischievous youths wore homemade masks to avoid recognition during their tomfoolery. 

These sweet, harmless pranks turned to full-blown vandalism by the 1930s, though, with some pranks turning positively dangerous. People were so terrified and on-edge when the masked hooligans passed by that they began bribing the children with sweets and candy, begging the kids to spare them the hassle of cleaning up the mess their pranks wrought. Treats instead of tricks, they said, and the kids listened.

Parents used this method of extortion to keep their own kids out of trouble, encouraging them to go door to door asking for candy rather than heading out to play pranks. 

Modern-day commercialization

The 1920s and ‘30s saw pre-made Halloween costumes being sold in stores all across the United States as the holiday became more and more popular. The post-World War II economic boom in the 1950s catapulted Halloween-related merchandise and sales through the roof, including bite-sized candy, party decorations and costumes for both adults and children. Cinemas showed scary movies all week long, and when television became more widely accessible in the 1960s, Halloween movie specials were on constantly leading up to the holiday.

With costumes to assemble, parties to decorate and candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters, Halloween spending has continued to increase with no signs of stopping. In 2015, Halloween spending was found to reach nearly $6.9 billion, in 2020 it was about $8.05 billion, and this year (2021) it’s estimated to reach nearly $10.14 billion!

So, when you start decorating for Halloween this year, remember the ancient origins of this spooky season and marvel at how far it’s come!


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/StockSnap

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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