October 25, 2012

The Historical Origins of Halloween (Part 1)

If you are like me, Halloween is one of your favorite holidays.  Some of my best memories are from Halloween celebrations.

My parents went all out for Halloween.  We had huge neighborhood parties with costume contests, apple bobbing and hay rides with haunted house style ghosties and ghoulies jumping out at us.  As we got older, we worked in the local haunted house to raise money for charity.  One of our neighbors made the most amazing fudge and peanut brittle and divinity, Halloween wasn’t complete without a visit to their house.

But where did the whole idea of Halloween come from? What is it we are celebrating that night? Why do we wear costumes and

According to, the origins of Halloween date back to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).  The Celts lived in what is now Ireland, the UK and northern France about 2,000 years ago.  They celebrated their new year on November 1, marking the end of summer and the harvest.  It  was a moment of transition to the dark, cold winter months associated with death.  The boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead became blurred on the night before the new year, according to the Celts.  On this night, Samhain, the Celts believed that the spirits of their dead returned to earth, causing damage to crops and creating mayhem.

The Celtic priests, Druids, were thought to be able to make predictions about the future on this night, as well. The Druids built huge bonfires where crops and animals were offered as sacrifices to the gods.  The Celts wore costumes at these ritual celebrations, consisting of animal heads and skins.  When the ritual was completed, the people would relight their home hearth fires from the sacred bonfires.

The Roman Empire conquered the majority of the Celtic peoples and lands by 43 A.D., and ruled there for nearly 400 years.  Over this time, two Roman celebrations were combined with Samhain.  The Romans celebrated Feralia in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead.  The second celebration was to honor Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees, whose symbol was a ripe apple.  This is probably the origin of the apple bobbing we all did as children.

So we have ancient Druid celebrations overlaid with Roman festivals that explain our costumes, our bonfires, and some of the games we play.  Is there more?

As Christianity overtook the Roman Empire, more layers were added to our original festival.  In 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV created the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day.  This was expanded by Pope Gregory III in the 700’s to include all saints as well, and moved from May 13 to November 1.  The Christian faith had moved into and swept over the earlier pagan faiths of the Celts by the 900’s, and in 1000 A.D., November 2 was denoted as All Souls’ Day to honor the dead.

This was a pretty blatant attempt by the church to usurp and assimilate the celebration of Samhain.  All Souls’ was celebrated with bonfires, costumes, and parades.  Eventually, All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallows (from the Middle English Alholowmesse or All Saints’ Day, making October 31, All Hallows’ Eve.  It’s an easy step from All Hallows’ Eve to Halloween.

Image Credit: James Thew / Shutterstock

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