If you ask around, the history of Halloween has many origin stories with many different religions and festivals claiming to be the true origin of today’s popular holiday. However, most historians now believe that Halloween as we know it dates back over 2,000 years to the ancient Celts and their festival of Samhain (sow-in). While today’s variation of the holiday is extremely different from the druidic celebrations of the ancient Celts, you can still see similarities in themes between the two events, and there’s a pretty clear line connecting these festivities together throughout the past centuries.
First, it’s important to discuss the relevance of druids in the Celtic society of ancient Gaul (modern-day France), Britain, and Ireland. You see, Druids used to be high priest like figures that represented enlightenment, scholarly ideals, lore, and leadership goals in ancient times. They were considered sacred, enlightened people from holy places across the countryside. Samhain was, in fact, a harvest celebration conducted by the druids in Celtic societies. In the ancient Celtic calendar, October 31st marked the end of the new year, so they celebrated Samhaim on that date to give thanks for the summer harvest and protect themselves against the cold, dark months that came with the beginning of their new year. They also believed that since the winter represented death (and summer life), that the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead became thin on Samhaim, so the dead could come back to earth, cause trouble, and damage crops. They also believed these spirits could help assist the druids in making future predictions, which likely consisted of crop predictions for the next year, generally meant to provide comfort for the primarily farming societies that relied on their crops for, well, life.
The druids on this night would build huge bonfires, burn crops and animal sacrifices, don animal-inspired costumes, and read fortunes of the new year. They would then use this sacred bonfire to light their own hearths at home as a symbol of protection for the winter months.
Shortly after the turn of the first century, around 43 AD, the Roman empire had conquered most of the Celtic lands. As the wisest and most respected in the land, the druids were targeted and more or less wiped out when Rome invaded. The Romans believed them to be the biggest threat against them, so they were almost erased from history with most of their knowledge and beliefs disappearing with them. For a brief time, the Romans combined their pagan festivities of Feralia and Pomona with the Samhaim celebration, altering it slightly and focusing it on the Roman pantheon.
That was, until the Holy Roman Empire became predominantly Christian in around 313 AD after the Edict of Milan. 10 years after the edict, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the Roman gods and deities more or less became a thing of the past. In the 9th century, Christianity had spread across all Roman-ruled lands, as well as all the lands that used to hold the Celtic religions. It was said that in 1000 AD, the church officially announced that November 2nd would be ‘All Soul’s Day’, an official Christian celebration, a day to honor the dead. Most historians believe that this was done to replace any remaining practices or thoughts of Samhain and Celtic festivals at this time with a church-sanctioned holiday with similar themes. Like Samhain, All Soul’s Day was celebrated with bonfires, parades, and costumes. All Soul’s Day was also referred to as All’hallowmas (Alholowmesse means ‘All Saint’s Day in Middle English), so the night before was referred to as ‘All-Hallows Eve’ which eventually was simplified to ‘Halloween’.
But you may have noticed that much of the Old World doesn’t celebrate Halloween quite as vigorously or excitedly as we celebrate it here in the US, and you would be right. Halloween has taken a life all its own in America, yet, funny enough, it was celebrated much more commonly in the Southern colonies, originally, as much of the north had very strict, protestant beliefs that didn’t align with dressing up and lighting bonfires. As America grew and became its own personality, so did Halloween, combining the celebrations of the colonists with the ideas and beliefs of the American Indians. Halloween began turning into an affair focused on celebrating harvest, fortune telling, dancing, singing, and throwing parties moreso than about protecting oneself for the harsh winters ahead. And with the melting pot of immigrants coming into the United States in the 19th century, American Halloween continued to develop its own personality unlike any other celebration around the world.
Trick or treating was thought to emerge as Halloween became more about neighborly celebrations with those who live nearby. Halloween in the US is more community-based than anywhere else around the world, and so the old idea of people going to neighbors homes asking for money or food on Halloween was combined with a neighborhood-friendly, more child-centric event involving giving candy to neighborhood kids.
And the list on what we consider relevant to Halloween could go on all day. For instance, you can read why we depict Halloween witches on broomsticks here, though it may greatly disturb you (you have been warned).
From its emergence in the roots of Samhain to its Christian revolution, Halloween as we know it has grown and evolved through the centuries until it became the more Americanized Halloween we all know and love in the mid-1900s. However you celebrate this spooky day, I hope you do so with excitement, joy, and in a way that has a profound meaning to you and whatever religion or personal beliefs you hold dear. Enjoy!