by Bethany Montgomery
What Is Halloween?
Halloween is a tradition that happens on the evening of October 31. It is also known as the eve of All Saints’ Day, or Allhallows Eve. Halloween is a very popular holiday observed especially by children in costumes who walk around and ask for candy and treats, often by threatening minor pranks.
Where Does Halloween Come From?
Halloween originates from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and harvesting, and it also pronounced the beginning of the dark, cold winter which was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead combined together. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For people completely dependent on the natural world, these predictions were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
On May 13th, 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 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands where it gradually blended with the older Celtic beliefs. In 1000 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 (from Middle English Alholowmesse 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.
What Are Today’s Halloween Traditions?
The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food, and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.
The tradition of dressing in costumes for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earth, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark, so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to please the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter.