Despite its mass appeal, Halloween is one of those holidays that many people don’t actually know much about. Even if you’ve participated in trick-or-treating, jack-o-lantern carving, haunted houses, apple bobbing, and other Halloween traditions from a young age, you may not know much about the origin of these traditions--or why we even celebrate Halloween in the first place.
Halloween, which takes place each year on the last day of October, is an unusual holiday in that it has evolved to include religious and folk traditions from several cultures. Modern-day Halloween traditions include remnants of the Roman festival of Feralia, the Celtic holiday of Samhain, and the Catholic Hallowmas portion of All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day. However, Halloween lost most of its religious associations and connotations in the 19th century as it slowly became known as a more secular, even commercial, children’s holiday.
For most Americans today, Halloween is all about candy, costumes, and spooky fun, but the holiday is based on decidedly more sinister traditions. For example, in ancient Celtic culture, the festival of Samhain was a day when the dead were believed to return to the Earth. In the ancient Celtic calendar, November 1st was the start of the New Year, and thus October 31st was a day associated with the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. Not surprisingly, then, this ominous day was associated with death. The ancient Celts attempted to ward off ghosts by wearing costumes of animal skins and heads and lighting bonfires, traditions that are reflected in the modern-day practice of dressing up for Halloween and lighting jack-o-lanterns.
The ancient Romans, who conquered most of the Celtic territory by A.D. 43, also commemorated the passing of the dead in late October, in a festival called Feralia. Elements of Feralia combined with another Roman celebration centered on Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees, and both of these eventually merged with the festival of Samhain. The symbol of Pomona was the apple, which may explain the modern-day tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.
When Christianity spread into Celtic lands, the traditions of All Saints’ Day, which honored saints and martyrs, were combined with the traditions of Samhain and Feralia. It’s believed that Pope Boniface IV actually created All Saints’ Day in an attempt to replace the Celtic’s "pagan" festival of the dead with a related, yet Christian, celebration. This church-sanctioned holiday was also referred to as All-hallows or All-hallowmas, which translates from the Middle English word for All Saints’ Day. Over time, the night before Samhain came to be known as All Hallow’s Eve, and, eventually, Halloween.
When Europeans immigrated to America, they brought their various Halloween traditions and costumes with them. Various cultures and customs mixed over the years to create the holiday we know today. For example, Irish and English traditions that involved going from house to house asking for money or food eventually morphed into today’s children-oriented tradition of trick-or-treating.
It was in the late 1800s that Halloween in America began to be less about ghosts and witchcraft and more about community get-togethers among neighbors and friends. Despite its dark roots, the modern celebration of Halloween is more about community, costumes, and commercialism than any real belief in ghosts or any serious attempt at honoring the dead. With that said, when you’re putting on your masks and costumes this year, it might give you a little thrill to think about the dark and sinister history behind this favorite American holiday. Happy Halloween!