The history of Halloween in the US began in 1846 courtesy of Irish immigrants. However the actual roots of the festival go back to the ancient Celts of Europe.
The Origin of Halloween
The Celtic festival known as Samhain is believed to be the predecessor of modern Halloween. Samhain marked the end of the Celtic harvest season. It was also the start of the Celtic New Year. The date for the New Year was October 31. On this day, the Celts believed that the lines separating the living and the dead dissipated.
During this time, evil spirits were said to roam the Earth. To combat these forces, the Celts would don masks. This aspect in the history of Halloween helps explain the tradition of watching scary costumes during the festival.
Where the Name Came From
Halloween got its name from Hallowe’en. This in turn was derived from All Hallow’s Eve. During the 9th century, the church changed the date of All Saint’s Day or All Hallows’ Day from May 13 to November 1. November 2 was then declared as the day of the dead.
For this reason, October 31 became known as All Hallows’ Eve. Despite the move of the church, the festival remained very popular among the people.
No study of the history of Halloween would be complete without addressing the origins of its many symbols. The jack o lantern had its roots in Celtic beliefs too. During Samhain, the Celts would carve heads out of rutabaga.
They believed that the head could ward off the evil sprits that were roaming the Erath. This legend became intertwined with Irish and British legends involving Stingy Jack.
According to the story, Stingy Jack was a greedy farmer who conned Satan into climbing a tree. Satan got stuck there when jack carved the trunk into a cross shape. In retaliation, the devil cursed Jack to roam the earth. His only companion was a candle in a turnip. Eventually, the rutabaga was replaced by the cabbage and pumpkin.
The history of Halloween has also become intertwined with trick or treating. Children clad in Halloween costumes would go to houses and greet the owner with the question “trick or treat?” The origin of this practice was the Middle Age practice of appeasing fairies.
There was a belief that people should leave sweets on October 31 to appease fairies and spirits. Not doing so meant one could fall victim to a fairy trick. A trick meant your property could be burned or livestock killed.
Other Halloween Symbols
Through the years, Halloween has become associated with goblins, skeletons and other scary figures and symbols. This practice first gained popularity in America and has spread through other countries.
This tradition has been popularized by movies. Also, a lot of stores use the occasion to sell Halloween related toys, costumes and other decorations.
While the history of Halloween indicates it was originally a religious festival, today most countries view it as a secular holiday. It has become a time for parties and watching horror films.
Additional Reading on Halloween
- Top Ten Halloween Party Songs