The Origins of Halloween

The night of the 31st day of October is a night filled with carved pumpkins, ghost costumes, tons of candy, and the famous ‘Trick-or-Treat’ phrase. However, it wasn’t always this way. Halloween is considered to be the 2nd most popular holiday in the United States, yet most have no clue of the origins of Halloween. Samhain as it used to be called, was celebrated on the last night of the Celtic calendar and meant “the end of summer”. As found with most modern holidays, the origins of these celebrations can be traced back to ancient pagan festivals marking the changing of the seasons.

Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic harvest festivals of Samhain, or Hallowmas, where people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as the time to honor all saints. Origins of HalloweenThis day marked the end of summer, and the yearly harvest, and the beginning of a dark, cold winter, most often associated with death. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later became known as ‘Halloween’. It is believed to be a holy time when the veil between the worlds is very thin and thought to be able to connect with deceased ancestors and gain wisdom and healing from them. This concept is not new, as, in the Latin culture, people go to the cemetery for a very similar Day of the Dead celebration. Since ancient records are sparse and fragmented, the exact nature of Samhain is not fully comprehended, but it confirms that this was an annual meeting at the end of the harvest year, a time to gather resources and bring animals in from the pastureland.

Centuries ago, Halloween celebrations were limited to colonial New England regions due to the strict Protestant belief systems found there. The celebrations at first were public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of their dead, dance, sing, and tell each others’ fortunes. It was not until the second half of the 19th century when Halloween was popularized in America due to the influx of new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish Potato famine.

One of the most archetypal Halloween rituals is “trick-or-treating” or “guising”(as in disguising), which has a vague origin. The “trick-or-treat” tradition has been essentially “borrowed” from Irish and English traditions, but it began in the Middle Ages, from the medieval practice of “souling”. Children of the poor, called “soulers” would dress in homemade costumes and take the streets going door to door during Hallowmas begging for money in exchange for songs, and stories often cited on behalf of the dead. Souling ultimately gave rise to guising, and once guising morphed into trick-or-treating, children no longer performed for their treats but rather extorted and vandalized for their treats.

Over the centuries, celebrations marking the end of a season have sprung all over the world. Some influencing others, some not, as the pure origins of Halloween cannot be traced. It is constantly debated by prominent historians, on really how influential Samhain was, stating on certain traditions have appeared in a number of different places, completely separate from each other. What is quite obvious, is that modern Halloween is a surplus of folk, pagan and Christian influences.