Each year on October 31, we celebrate Halloween - we go trick-or-treating, carve jack-o-lanterns, put on costumes, and attend parties. But where did these traditions and customs begin? The origin comes from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints - All Saints Day - over time traditions of both merged into our Halloween today.
The Celts lived 2,000 years ago in the area of Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, and celebrated their new year on November 1. It marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter - often associated with death. They believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead became blurred. Samhain was celebrated on October 31, when it was believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
Celts believed that the presence of the otherworldly spirits caused trouble and damaged crops, but also made it easier for the Druids, Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. This was an important source of comfort during the long, dark winter.
The Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During this celebration, they wore costumes, typically of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.
After the celebration, everyone re-lit their hearth fires, which were extinguished earlier in the evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the upcoming winter.
The Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory by 43 A.D. and combined two of their festivals with Samhain.
The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.
All Saints’ Day
Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome on May 13, 609 to honor all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III expanded the festival to include all saints and all martyrs, moving the day from May 13 to November 1.
The influence of Christianity spread into the Celtic lands by the 9th century and blended with the Celtic traditions. November 2, 1000 was made All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. This was similar to Samhain where their were big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, the night before began to be called All-Hallows Eve and eventually, Halloween.
Halloween Comes to America
Halloween was very limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant belief system. However, Halloween was much more common in Maryland and southern colonies.
As beliefs and customs from different European ethnic groups and Native Americans meshed, the American version of Halloween began to emerge. These first celebrations included “play parties,” or public events to celebrate the harvest. During these celebrations neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.
In the second half of the 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween.
Americans borrowed from the European traditions of dressing up in costumes, but began to go house to house asking for food or money. Young women believed they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors.
The late 1800s brought another change to traditions, this time to make Halloween into more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the 19th century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the common way to celebrate the day. Such parties were focused on games, foods of the seasons and festive costumes.
Newspapers and community leaders encouraged parents to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations.
Halloween became a secular but community-centered holiday by the 1920s and 30s with parades and town-wide Halloween parties as the featured entertainment.
By the 1950s, due to the high numbers of young children from the baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom. Trick-or-treating was also revived by the 1950s as an inexpensive way for the entire community to share in the celebration. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
Early Local Celebrations
It was reported in the Indiana County Gazette on November 1, 1899 that the Normal students celebrated Halloween by a phantom party. The students made their appearance in the first and second floor corridors about 8 o’clock each trying to disguise his voice and general bearing and trying to figure out who his neighbor was. In the dining room, an old time Halloween feast was served, and after the grand march and unmasking, the students spent the remainder of the evening cracking nuts and other Halloween sports.