The story of Halloween takes a long and winding road. It starts way back in the times when Stonehenge was constructed in ancient England, and evolves as the Christian Church gets involved, and again when the celebration travels from the European continent over to North America.
OK, so let’s get started!
Where did the name “Halloween” come from?
The word “Halloween” or “Hallowe’en” dates back to about 1745 and is of Christian origin. The word “Hallowe’en” means “hallowed evening” or “holy evening.” It comes from a Scottish term for “All Hallows’ Eve” (the evening before All Hallows’ Day). In Scottish, the word “eve” is “even,” and this is contracted to e’en or een. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Hallowe’en.
Where did our celebration of “Halloween” originate from and how did it evolve?
Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (Pronounced sow-in, go figure!). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1st. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with death.
Celts believed that on the night before their New Year (Oct. 31st), the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31st they celebrated Samhain (remember, pronounced sow-in), when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of these spirits made it easier for the Druids (the Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the unpredictable natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction as they headed into the long, dark winter.
To celebrate the event, the Druids built huge sacred bonfires, and the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins.
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. Over the course of the next four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
In 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV established the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st.
By the 9th century (the 800’s) the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It is widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called “All-hallows” or “All-hallowmas” (from Middle English “Alholowmesse” meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
So the merging of the Celtic, Roman and Christian celebrations and holidays, related to what we now call Halloween, was now fairly complete.
But the evolution of Halloween was not complete yet. Americans of course would have to put their spin on it!
Over a half a century later in America, the celebration of Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant beliefs there. Halloween was much more common in the southern colonies.
As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.
The first American Halloween celebrations included public gatherings held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds.
By the middle of the nineteenth century (the 1800’s), annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the nineteenth century (the late 1800’s) America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a more non-religious, community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment.
By the 1950’s, Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young, probably due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom. The centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share in the Halloween celebration.
So there you have the history of “Halloween.”
A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow every year. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday, behind only Christmas.
Halloween has always been a holiday filled with mystery, magic and superstition. It began as a Celtic end-of-summer festival during which people felt especially close to deceased relatives and friends. For these friendly spirits, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.
Today’s Halloween ghosts are often depicted as more fearsome and evil in nature. Our customs and superstitions are scarier too.
Christian churches now tend to officially disassociate themselves from the celebration of Halloween, since the evolution of the holiday has taken it off into a “Godless” direction.
When we think of Halloween now, we think of the night, darkness, monsters, ghosts, skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, witches, bats, spiders, graveyards, vampires, the devil and demons. Basically, anything scary.
Did You Know?:
Over one fourth of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween?
Pumpkins entered into the Halloween celebration after Irish immigrants came to America and found that pumpkins were easier to carve than potatoes?
Jack-o-lanterns have been around for hundreds of years. The legend actually revolves around a man named Jack. Jack supposedly made a deal with the devil, which of course usually does not turn out good. In the end, Jack is stuck between heaven and hell, wandering around, looking for his final resting place, lighting his way, carrying a pumpkin with a candle in it to light his way.
Candy corn, a popular treat during Halloween, was first created in the late 1800’s. More than 35 million pounds of candy corn is produced each year!
The word “witch” comes from the word “wica,” an Old Saxon word that means “wise one.” The early-known witches were dealers in medicinal herbs and charms and were highly respected in their communities.
Well, now your Halloween IQ has just been increased over 100%!
Here are just a few more parting shots!
Q: What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire?
Q: Why are ghosts so bad at lying?
A: Because you can see right through them!
Q: What’s it like to be kissed by a vampire?
A: It’s a pain in the neck.
Well you don’t have to cry about it!
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Thank you, MrEricksonRules.