The story of Halloween has been passed down through generations. There are traditions and adaptations that still continue today that have their history in ancient ceremonies and superstitions. These have evolved into what we know and love today about Halloween.
This holiday is usually celebrated on the night of October 31st. The word Halloween is a shortened name for All Hallows’ Evening, and can also be known as Hallowe’en or All Hallows’ Eve. Traditional activities of the holiday include trick-or-treating, bonfires, costume parties, the visitation of “haunted houses” and carving of jack-o-lanterns. It’s origins lye in the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”). The festival is a celebration of the ending of harvest season in the Gaelic culture. It was also a time when ancient pagans would take stock of their supplies and prepare for the winter season. Winter was viewed as the start of a dark time. A higher percentage of deaths would occur due to the lack of food or shelter for people.
The ancient Gaels had believed that on the 31st of October the boundaries between the worlds of the living would overlap with the world of the dead and the deceased would come back to life, causing havoc, such as sickness or damaged crops. The festival often involved bonfires. It was believed that these fires would attract insects to them, which would also attract bats. Masks and costumes were also worn in an attempt to mimic evil spirits or appease them.
The druids were holy men of the Celtic peoples. They were likely the ones that had associated death and darkness with what is today known as Halloween. It was said that they would have premonitions and could also communicate with the dead. To commemorate the event, they would build huge sacred bonfires. People would gather around the fires to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. When the celebrations were over they would relight their hearth fires that they had extinguished earlier that evening, with fire from the sacred bonfire, so as to protect them during the winter.
Over the years, Halloween has gone through many changes influenced by many factors. Some of these are geography, religion, culture, customs, time, society and more. While most love Halloween today, it isn’t what it used to be.
By 43 A.D. Celtic boundaries were conquered by the Romans. They would combine their festival of Samhain with two of the Romans festivals, which were celebrated at the same time. A festival known as Feralia had commemorated the dead during that latter part of October. It was the first of the two festivals to be incorporated. The other festival was held to show respect to Pomona, the Roman goddess of trees and fruits.
During the Middle Ages local people would start to convert to Christianity. The church, in an attempt to win more converts would integrate some pagan holidays as well as rituals into their religion. Pope Gregory IV would try and replace Samhain with All Saints’ Day, in 835 A.D., which is on November 1st. All Saints Days were meant for all Christian saints and martyrs and was established at the Western Church in May of 609 A.D. Another Christian holiday called All Souls Day, held on November 2nd, would resemble Samhain and the present Halloween even more so, but the move was never successful. All Souls Day was meant for all of the dead. The night before, All Saints Day (All-Hallowmas) would gather its name from All-Hallows Eve and would eventually adapt into Halloween.
In colonial New England, the celebration of Halloween was extremely limited because of the rigid Protestant belief systems in place here. It was, however, much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies.
In the 19th century versions of the traditions held of this day were brought to America with Irish and Scottish immigrants. The immigrants would share the history of Halloween, its customs and beliefs, and they would mix these with the culture of the American Indians. This would give rise to the American version of Halloween. At first the celebrations were only limited to a certain region. They would include dance and songs, stories of the dead, fortune telling and other public affairs that were related to the harvest festivals. Thereafter, the tradition of Halloween had become more and more popular and eventually gained a national presence. By the 20th century other western countries embraced the holiday. Today, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand participate in celebrations.