The Origin of Halloween

As I’ve said here before, I’m stickler for history, especially the kind that isn’t widely known. Most holidays have customs and traditions that are taken as a given and rarely explored and questioned. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but with origins as interesting as Halloween’s, it’s a shame more people don’t know the background.

Halloween has a complex and fascinating history. As many people now know, it has Celtic origins, specifically the holiday of Samhain (pronounced sah-wen), named after the month on the Celtic calendar. The Celts of Northern Europe divided the year into a ‘light half,’ whereby the days were longer and nights shorter, and a “dark half,” in which the nights were longer and days shorter.

Samhain was celebrated as the end of the Gaelic-Celtic harvest season, around the transition between the light and dark half.  Thus it was seen as a “Celtic New Year,” and like most harvest observances, was the time to stock up on crops and livestock for the winter. When the Romans conquered the area and imposed their Julian Calendar, the British Celts fixed the holiday on November 1st, which was roughly around the same time as their own measurements.

On the evening before this day, it was believed that the barrier between the dead and living dissolved and evil spirits could wreak havoc, causing illness or damaging crops. The pagan Celts would thus light bonfires from livestock bones to ward them off, dress as monsters and ghosts to placate or scare them, or – most famously – utilize lighted jack-o-lanterns as a ward as well. Back then, these were carved from turnips and rutabaga; since pumpkins were a New World crop and not yet known, it was only upon reaching America that immigrants from this area would opt for pumpkins and other large squashes, which were far easier to work with.

The Celts believed that the head, as the place of knowledge and the spirit, was powerful and could ward off spirits and other negative forces – hence the carving of faces into these vegetables.

Bobbing for apples, which is not as commonly practiced but still iconic, may have come from celebrations to the Roman goddess Pomona, a harvest deity whose symbol was an apple. As such, she could’ve been fused to the Celt’s harvest holiday by Roman settlers that intermingled with them.

In the year 609 Pope Gregory III moved the holiday known as All Saint’s Day, a celebration of Christian saints and martyrs, from May 13th (also a pagan holiday, the Festival of Lemures) to November 1st, the day that he dedicated a chapel in Peter’s Basilica to All Saints. Since All Saints Day was also known as “All Hallows Day” (Hallow meaning sacred and holy), the night before was thus “All Hallow’s Evening,” eventually shortened to Halloween.

Thus, despite the claims of many fundamentalist Christians, Halloween was historically not commonly viewed as a ‘satanic’ or evil holiday. In fact, it is well regarded as an important, though now very secularized, day in Christianity. Christians tended to merge pagan holidays with their own as the faith spread and began to take in converts from pagan traditions. Irish and Scottish immigrants, the modern-day descendants of Gaelic Celts (the former pagans), brought it over to Canada, the US, Australia, and other nations during the 18th century and onward. Samhain, the inspiration to this holiday, was also very holy and is still well-regarded by neo-Pagans and Wiccans to this day.

As for the iconic act of trick or treating, this began again with the Celts, namely those of the British Isles. They had a tradition called souling, where poorer people went door to door asking for food in return for their prayers to the souls and saints of All Saints and All Souls Day (November 1st and 2nd respectively). This practice apparently became fused with another ritual consisting of dressing up as evil spirits in order to placate, please, or scare the “real deal” (in other words, for safety). The trick developed into an idle threat to ‘trick’ -i.e. through posing as an evil spirit – the household if they didn’t provide the “treats”. Sure enough, Halloween remains known as a time for pranks and mischief to this day.

Keep in mind that various sources may provide their own slightly nuanced accounts. Like much of history, there are disputed claims and many uncertainties. Don’t take any of this as authoritative, and do feel free to share your own data on the subject. I’d be curious to know.

Nowadays, Halloween is the time to get scared, binge on candy, engage in partying, embrace the occult or supernatural, and dress like fools without (as much) social judgment! So with that said: have a good Halloween everyone!

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4 comments on “The Origin of Halloween

  1. Interesting article; however, one part is unclear to me… Were the people praying to the saints? or were they praying to God for the souls of the saints? or did they pray to spirits only? why not pray for the people they were harvesting food from? aren’t saints human beings just like you and me? (not sure why they are considered more important than the next man/woman).

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