Halloween is a holiday observed every year on October 31st, and in 2021, that would be on Sunday, October 31st. The custom dates back to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain when people lit bonfires and dressed up in costumes to fend off ghosts. Pope Gregory III set November 1 as a day to celebrate all saints in the ninth century. All Saints Day soon incorporated elements of Samhain’s customs. All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween, was the night before. Now, trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, celebratory parties, donning costumes, and eating treats have all become part of Halloween’s tradition.
Halloween’s Historical Background
The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). On November 1, the Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year.
This day signified the end of summer and harvest, as well as the start of the dark, frigid winter, which was traditionally connected with human death. Celts thought that during the night before New Year’s Day, the line between the living and the dead blurred. They celebrated Samhain on October 31st, when it was thought that the spirits of the dead returned to earth.
Apart from causing havoc and destroying crops, Celts believed that the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier for Druids, or Celtic priests, to make future forecasts. These forecasts were a source of consolation for a people who were completely reliant on the turbulent natural environment during the long, dark winter.
Druids erected massive sacred bonfires to celebrate the festival, where people came to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. The Celts dressed up in animal heads and skins and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes during the festival.
They re-lit their hearth fires which had been extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire after the festival was done to help protect them over the approaching winter.
The Roman Empire had captured the majority of Celtic land by 43 A.D. During the 400 years that they governed the Celtic kingdoms, two Roman celebrations were mixed with the customary Celtic Samhain celebration.
The first was Feralia, a day in late October when Romans honored the deaths of their ancestors. Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, came on the second day. The apple is Pomona’s symbol, and the fact that it was included into Samhain possibly explains the modern-day Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples.
All Saints’ Day
Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to all Christian martyrs on May 13, 609 A.D., and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was instituted in the Western church. Later, Pope Gregory III broadened the event to include all saints and martyrs, and shifted the date from May 13 to November 1.
By the 9th century, Christianity had expanded throughout Celtic territories, eventually blending with and displacing ancient Celtic ceremonies. The church declared November 2nd, 1000 A.D., to be All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. Today, it’s largely assumed that the church was aiming to replace the Celtic celebration of the dead with a church-approved event.
All Souls’ Day was observed in the same way as Samhain, with large bonfires, parades, and people dressed up as saints, angels, and demons. The festival of All Saints’ Day was also known as All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse, which means All Saints’ Day), and the night before it, Samhain in Celtic religion, became known as All-Hallows Eve and, finally, Halloween.
Halloween Comes to America
Because of the strict Protestant theological systems in colonial New England, the celebration of Halloween was severely constrained. In Maryland and the southern colonies, Halloween was far more popular.
As the beliefs and rituals of various European ethnic groups and American Indians collided, a uniquely American version of Halloween arose. “Play parties,” which were public activities meant to celebrate the harvest, were among the first celebrations. Neighbors would tell each other ghost stories, tell fortunes, dance, and sing.
The telling of ghost stories and various forms of mischief-making were also part of the Colonial Halloween celebrations. Annual autumn celebrations were prevalent by the middle of the nineteenth century, but Halloween was not yet widely observed.
America was overwhelmed with new immigrants in the second part of the nineteenth century. These newcomers, particularly the millions of Irish escaping the Irish Potato Famine, helped to promote Halloween across the country.
History of Trick-or-Treating
Taking inspiration from European customs, Americans began dressing up in costumes and going door to door asking for food or money, a practice that evolved into the “trick-or-treat” ritual we know today. Young ladies believed that by performing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors on Halloween, they could discern the name or appearance of their future husband.
In the late 1800s, there was a push in America to make Halloween more about community and neighborly gatherings than ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most popular method to commemorate the occasion around the turn of the century. Games, seasonal cuisine, and colorful costumes were the emphasis of the parties.
Newspapers and community leaders urged parents to remove anything “frightening” or “grotesque” from Halloween celebrations. By the turn of the twentieth century, Halloween had lost most of its superstitious and religious connotations as a result of these efforts.
Halloween had evolved into a secular but community-centered event by the 1920s and 1930s, with parades and town-wide Halloween festivities as the main attractions. Vandalism began to plague some festivals in many localities at this time, despite the best efforts of many schools and communities.
Town officials had successfully restricted damage by the 1950s, and Halloween had developed into a festivity aimed primarily at children. Because of the enormous number of k during the 1950s baby boom, celebrations were shifted from town civic buildings to classrooms or homes, where they could be accommodated more readily.
The centuries-old tradition of trick-or-treating was also revived between 1920 and 1950. Trick-or-treating was a low-cost way for a whole community to participate in the Halloween celebration. In theory, families may also prevent tricks from being played on them by presenting little presents to the neighborhood kids.
As a result, a new American custom was formed, and it has grown ever since. Halloween is now the country’s second-largest commercial event, after Christmas, with an estimated $6 billion spent yearly.
All Souls Day and Soul Cakes
Trick-or-treating is a Halloween practice that originated in England during the early All Souls’ Day celebrations. Poor people would beg for food during the festivities, and families would offer them “soul cakes” in exchange for their vow to pray for the family’s deceased relatives.
The church promoted the distribution of soul cakes as a way to replace the historical practice of leaving food and drink for wandering spirits. The tradition, known as “going a-souling,” was eventually adopted by youngsters, who would visit their neighbors’ homes and receive ale, food, and money.
The custom of dressing up for Halloween includes European as well as Celtic origins. Winter was a perilous and terrible season hundreds of years ago. Food supplies were frequently depleted, and many people who were scared of the dark found the short days of winter to be a source of persistent anxiety.
People believed they might encounter ghosts if they left their homes on Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts returned to the earthly world. People would wear masks when leaving their homes after dark to avoid being recognized by the ghosts, so that they would be mistaken for fellow spirits.
To keep ghosts away from their homes on Halloween, folks would leave bowls of food outside their doors to please the spirits and deter them from attempting to enter.
Black Cats and Ghosts on Halloween
Halloween has long been a celebration steeped in lore, magic, and folklore. It all started as a Celtic end-of-summer event during which people felt particularly connected to their deceased relatives and friends. They prepared places at the dinner table for these friendly spirits, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road, and lit candles to assist loved ones in returning to the spirit realm.
Today’s Halloween ghosts are frequently depicted as more terrifying and evil, and our traditions and superstitions are also more frightening. We avoid black cats because we are scared they will bring us bad luck. This belief dates back to the Middle Ages, when many people believed that witches disguised themselves as black cats to evade detection.
For the same reason, we avoid walking under ladders. This belief may have originated with the ancient Egyptians, who considered triangles to be sacred (it also may have something to do with the fact that walking under a leaning ladder tends to be fairly unsafe). And, especially around Halloween, we strive to avoid smashing mirrors, walking on road cracks, and spilling salt.
Halloween Matchmaking and Lesser-Known Rituals
What about the Halloween customs and beliefs that today’s trick-or-treaters have completely forgotten about? Many of these out-of-date rites were centered on the future rather than the past, and on the living rather than the dead.
Many of them had to do with assisting young women in identifying their prospective spouses and promising them that they will marry someday—hopefully by next Halloween. On Halloween night in 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook may bury a ring in her mashed potatoes, believing that the diner who discovered it would find true love.
In Scotland, fortune-tellers advised an eligible young woman to name each of her suitors a hazelnut and then hurl the nuts into the fireplace. According to legend, the nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding symbolized the girl’s future husband. (According to certain versions of the folklore, the nut that burned away indicated a love that would not last.)
Another legend claimed that a young woman would dream of her future spouse if she ate a sugary mixture comprised of walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg before retiring on Halloween night.
Young women tossed apple peels over their shoulders in the hopes of finding their future husbands’ initials on the floor; tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water; and stood in front of mirrors in darkened rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for their husbands’ faces.
Some rituals were more competitive than others. The first guest to uncover a burr on a chestnut search at some Halloween parties would be the first to marry. The first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle at other times.
Of fact, whether we’re seeking love guidance or hoping to escape seven years of bad luck, all of these Halloween superstitions rely on the kindness of the same “spirits” who the early Celts felt so strongly.
What is Halloween and why do we celebrate it?
Halloween is a holiday celebration every year on October 31st, and in 2021, that would be on Sunday, October 31st. The custom dates back to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain when people lit bonfires and dressed up in costumes to fend off ghosts.
What is the true meaning of Halloween?
The saints commemorated on All Saints’ Day, November 1, are referred to as “hallow” — or holy person. So, Halloween is essentially an old-fashioned way of stating “the night before All Saints’ Day,” also known as Hallowmas or All Hallows’ Day.