The Ancient Origins of Halloween.

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” ~ William Shakespeare

Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition as it straddles the line between life and death, fall and winter. But have you ever wondered about the origin of Halloween or All Hallows Eve?

Halloween dates back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain some 2,000 years ago.

The Celts celebrated their New Year on November 1st as this day marked the end of summer. It also marked the end of harvest and the beginning of a long, dark, and cold winter.

Celts believed that on the night before the New Year, the bridge between the living and the dead could be crossed and the dead were able to walk among the living and roam the earth. To commemorate the event, Druids would build large sacred bonfires where the people would gather to offer sacrifices from their crops and would sacrifice animals to the Celtic deities.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and animal skin, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. They tried to hide their identity so that spirits would not follow them home.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the 400 years they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.

The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead.

The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the Halloween tradition of “bobbing for apples.”

On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church.

Pope Gregory III (731-741) later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st. By the 19th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites.

In 1,000 A.D., the church would make November 2nd All Souls Day, a day to honor the dead.

It is widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils.

The All Saints Day celebration was also called All Hallows or All Hallowmas (meaning All Saints Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion began to be called All Hallows Eve and eventually, Halloween.

As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.

The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief of all kinds.

By the middle of the 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.

By the 1020’s and 1930’s, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat.”

And thus, Halloween, as we know it today, was born.


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