Halloween is a beloved yearly tradition for many. For some, it is a time for spooky movies or trick-or-treating. For others, it’s a time to get super drunk and party all night in cool, quirky, or cute costumes. Whatever your plans for the night, chances are that it’s a slight stone’s throw from the original premise of Halloween.
Most scholars and historians agree that Halloween’s origins date back to thousands of years ago, to the Celtic festivity of Samhain (pronounced sow-en) which is celebrated from the evening of October 31 to the evening of November 1. The pagan festival marked the end of the harvesting season and the start of winter, a new year, for the Celts.
During their celebrations, the Celts often danced around a bonfire, wearing costumes. The reason for which is three-fold.
First, they believed that the boundary between life and death was at its thinnest and souls were set free from the land of the dead. The wearing of the costumes symbolized that freedom. Second, Celts believed that some of these ghosts and otherworldly spirits would cause trouble by damaging crops or haunting the living, so the costumes were worn as a disguise. And third, it was a way to honor their Gods and Goddesses of harvest, field, and flock, so they may once again be blessed with good crop the next year.
The Celts also believed the thin barrier between the living and dead made it easier for Druids (Celtic Priests) to predict the future. Also, after the celebrations, each family would take a burning ember from the sacred bonfire and light the hearth at home for good luck. The fire was to be kept burning for several months otherwise tragedy could befall.
The families would also leave offerings of food and drink – tribute – outside their homes at the end of the night to appease any wandering spirits who might seek to play tricks. The dressing up and the offering of food, then, is where the desire for detailed costumes and trick-or-treat comes from.
Other traditions observed today can also be traced back to history.
The families would leave tribute outside their homes to appease any wandering spirits who might seek to play tricks.
At the time of the Celts, Romans were going around conquering various lands and Christianity was attempting to erase pagan religions. The creation of All Souls Day, for example, arose from the Church’s need for a similar holiday to Samhain. All Souls Day is held on November 2 as a day to honor the dead.
During Christianity’s spread, Pope Boniface IV established All Martyr’s Day. Then, Pope Gregory III expanded this idea to include All Saints. The term, Halloween, actually comes from the All Saints Day celebration, which was called All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas.
And according to History.com, during the Roman Empire’s colonization, their Roman festivities took root into Samhain celebrations. So, if you’ve ever wondered where the tradition of bobbing for apples came from, it stems from the Romans honoring Pomona, their Goddess of fruitful abundance whose symbol is the apple.
Eventually, Halloween came to America and Canada. With the influx of Irish immigrants during the 19th century, Halloween celebrations became more popular. Although Halloween was celebrated in America before then, it was extremely limited due to the widespread Protestant belief systems in the colonies.
Today’s Halloween, then, is nowhere near what was originally conceived. It’s much more commercial. Retail spending for Halloween, for instance, was an estimated $9 billion in 2018. And even though I love Halloween, I can’t help but find it strange that a holiday which originally started with ghosts and spirits is now this massive business. Many American and Canadian people today don’t even think of celebrating their dead ancestors on Halloween, instead, it’s largely a chance to dress up and party.
There are many ways to celebrate Halloween though, but one thing that remains between all cultures and periods is that it’s a time to be around your community, be it while getting smashed or sitting at home and watching movies!