Halloween is celebrated in many countries across the world - but do you know its origins? It’s an interesting holiday with a long, rich history that might surprise you. From prehistoric harvest festivals to jack-o-lanterns and candy today, read on for Halloween 101.
Many, many moons ago
It began 2,000 years ago with the Celts, who lived in what is now Ireland, the UK, and northern France. They celebrated their new year on November 1st - a day that marked the transition from the summer harvest into the dark cold winter - a time of year often associated with death. They thought that during this night, the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped, and celebrated “Samhain” - the moment it was believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The Druids (the Celtic priests) would build huge sacred bonfires and offer sacrifices to the deities, and attempt to tell each others’ fortunes.
2,000 years later, by 43 AD, the Roman Empire had conquered most of the Celtic territory - and over the course of their rule, two new festivals merged with Samhain: first, Feralia, a day dedicated to the passing of the dead, and secondly, a day to honour Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees (this might explain the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples).
As centuries passed, Christianity spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually merged with and replaced Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church designated the 2nd of November as a day to honour the dead: All Souls’ Day. Most historians agree that the church was hoping to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was named All-hallowmas (from the Middle English word for All Saints’ Day Alholowmesse) - while the night before became known as All-Hallows Eve, and soon, Halloween.
As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups and the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties” to celebrate the harvest, and communities would share stories of the dead, dance, and sing.
Halloween arrives in America
Due to the rigid Protestant belief systems in New England, the celebration of Halloween was initially more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. But as the beliefs and customs of different ethnic groups (and the Native Americans) meshed, a uniquely American take on Halloween was born.
At the turn of the 19th century, neighbourhood Halloween parties with games, seasonal foods, and festive costumes, became the norm. Americans started dressing up in costumes and going from house to house asking for food or money (the origin of what we know as “trick-or-treating”). The idea behind trick-or-treating was that families could prevent tricks from being played on them by providing children with treats. Trick-or-treating was an easy and affordable way for a neighbourhood to celebrate Halloween together.
Trick-or-treating and costumes aside, the holiday is a huge commercial success through scary movies. From Halloween, Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street to Friday the 13, Hocus Pocus, and Beetlejuice, the so-called spooky season is a box office highlight. In America alone, Halloween generates $6 billion annually!
These days, Halloween is celebrated in different ways across the world - and not just by children. Mexico and other Latin American countries celebrate Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead) - honouring deceased loved ones - followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. In Ireland, it’s celebrated with bonfires and trick-or-treating. Jack-o-Lanterns actually originated in Ireland with carved turnips and potatoes (pumpkins became popular when Irish immigrants arrived in America.
However you're planning to celebrate this year, the Study Together team wishes you a very spooky Halloween!