The History of Halloween

The ultimate guide to Halloween’s past and the traditions that have come from it.

Written By: Hadley Dejarnette


It’s finally Fall, and with Halloween just around the corner, it’s time to break out those yearly traditions of pumpkin carving, horror movie marathons, and good old-fashioned bonfires! Halloween is a time that lets you be whoever you want to be, with the added benefit of parties and treats, but have you ever stopped to question why we celebrate this strange holiday? We all know the stories behind holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and even Independence Day, but the mysterious history of Halloween is unfamiliar to most of us. What you don’t know may surprise you, this elusive holiday has a lot more hiding beneath the surface than you would expect.


The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, which was celebrated in the area that is now known as Ireland, England, and Northern France. Samhain celebrated the end of harvest, the transition period from summer to winter. It was believed that on the previous night of October 31, the veil between the living and the dead would be at its thinnest. This would allow for the dead to return to where they had walked before and even interact with the living. In an attempt to Christianize this pagan holiday, Pope Gregory III deemed November 1 as All Saints’ Day. The previous evening of October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve, currently celebrated as Halloween.


While the holiday has been Christianized and modernized over the years, there are still several traditions that reflect the ancient celebrations of Samhain. Modern-day trick-or-treating has evolved from the ancient Irish tradition of dressing in costumes and going door to door singing songs to the dead. Money, nuts and baked treats known as soul cakes were often given in exchange for prayers for the dead. This practice was later taken up by children and became known as “souling.”


The beginning of winter marked a time of uncertainty as the failure of crops and human death lurked just around the corner. The Celts sought comfort in prophecies about the future from Druids (Celtic priests) and would commemorate these sacred events with bonfires, previously known as “bone fires” as they were often made up of disposable bones and animals used as sacrifices. During these celebrations, it was expected that otherworldly spirits would make an appearance. In order to deceive and ward off bad spirits who may have a vengeance, people would take part in a tradition called guising in which they would darken their faces using ashes from the bonfires and even incorporate masks and other costumes typically consisting of animal heads and skins.


Another modern-day tradition that can be traced back to Celtic origins is the modern-day jack-o-lantern. People used to carve out vegetables such as gourds and turnips to scare away wandering spirits. The term jack-o-lantern came from the old Irish legend of Stingy Jack who was trapped by the devil and cursed to never make it to the angelic afterlife. When immigrants came from Ireland to America, they found that the native American vegetable, pumpkins, were easier to carve and make into jack-o-lanterns.


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