By Ava Casab (’23)
Every October 31st in the U.S., children from across the nation dress up in various costumes, grab their jack-o-lantern shaped buckets, and make their way from house to house collecting a prize greater than any other: candy. What many people don’t know, however, is that Halloween has been around for thousands of years, just in a bit of a different form than we are accustomed to.
Our story begins with the Celts, a group of people who lived about 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland, the UK, and northern France. For the Celts, November 1st marked the end of the harvest and the start of winter, which was at the time associated with the death of humans. They believed that on the night of October 31st, the lines dividing the worlds of the living and the dead blurred up. This meant that for one night each year, the ghosts of the dead could return to Earth. This all happened during an event called Samhain.
While the ghosts were notorious for damaging crops and generally causing trouble, the presence of ghosts and spirits made it easier for Celtic priests, known as druids, to make predictions about the future. These predictions were an important source of comfort and direction throughout the long, dark winters present in the areas occupied by the Celts. In addition to this, druids built giant sacred bonfires to commemorate the event. These bonfires were used to burn crops and animals as tribute to Celtic deities. During these events, the Celts wore costumes of animal skins and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When they were over, the bonfire was used to relight their hearth fires, which had been extinguished earlier, as a way to protect themselves from the incoming winter.
These traditions found themselves altered when the Romans eventually conquered Celtic lands. Although the occupation only lasted for about 400 years, two Roman celebrations had the most impact on how Samhain was celebrated. The first, Feralia, was celebrated in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead. The second was a day of honor to Pomana, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. This explains why we sometimes bob for apples at Halloween parties – Pomona’s symbol was an apple.
Later on, the Christian church ended up changing Samhain yet again into All Soul’s Day on November 2nd. All Saint’s Day, celebrated the day before, was also established. The night before All Saint’s Day, otherwise known as the date of Samhain, was originally called All Hollow’s Eve and was eventually shortened to Halloween. From this point forward, the only changes to Halloween would be in its celebration, not to its name.
Few people celebrated Halloween in New England due to the strict Protestant beliefs found there, but the event was more common in the southern colonies. As the beliefs of Native Americans and European descendants clashed, a new “American” Halloween began to emerge. “Play parties” were hosted to celebrate the harvest and consisted of sharing stories about those who had passed, telling fortunes, dancing, and singing. By the mid-nineteenth century, autumn parties were commonplace but there was still no real Halloween celebration. The celebration gained more traction when the Irish Potato Famine brought millions of people to America, bringing with them the ideas behind Halloween.
In the late 1800’s, Halloween became more about community celebrations focused on ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, this idea of Halloween became widely accepted across the States. Through the encouragement of newspapers and community leaders, Halloween slowly lost its original thrills; parents were encouraged to leave scary and grotesque things out of Halloween parties.
Around the 1920s and 1930s, vandalism became more prominent during the Halloween season, but was eliminated by around 1950. During this period, trick-or-treating became more commonplace. Trick-or-treating likely emerged from early All Soul’s Day parades in England, where poor families prayed for the dead relatives of certain families and in return received “soul cakes” from other families. Referred to as “going a-souling”, this practice eventually became a practice of children running along their neighborhood, getting money and food from each house.
From its humble Celtic origins, Halloween has certainly grown. Today, Americans spend about $6 billion annually for Halloween, second only to Christmas in the world of commercial holidays. On the Internet, “Spooktober” reigns supreme throughout the month of October, filled with Halloween-themed memes and dancing skeleton GIFs. The lure of huge amounts of candy on Halloween night leads some to devise entire strategies designed to optimize efficiency and the amount of candy received while trick-or-treating. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, there’s no denying that Halloween has made a significant mark in our lives.
To all my friends who plan on grabbing their pillowcases and pulling out a costume this year, good luck. Make sure to stay safe out there – you never know where the ghosts are lurking.