“But I thought it was invented by the candy companies!”
Every year from September to the beginning of November, Halloween candy, costumes, black and orange party decorations, and scary movies cover shelfs of almost every store. People decorate their homes with cotton “spider webs”, witches with big hats, black cats, and pumpkins. Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the United States and we spend about $6.9 billion on Halloween merchandise every year. But very few people know the origins of Halloween or some of our favorite seasonal activities.
The basic idea of Halloween comes from ancient Celtic religion. The Celts were a group of people who lived throughout Europe, but we mostly associate them with Ireland and the British Isles. The original Celtic holiday was named after the god of death, Samhain (pronounced sow-en). This holiday was celebrated over 2,000 years ago and it marked the end of summer and the Celtic New Year. It was believed that the spirits of the people who had died in the past year could return to earth on October 31st and try to possess the living. The villagers obviously didn’t want to be possessed, so villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, dress in costume, and parade around the village being noisy and destructive to keep the spirits away from them. The Celts also believed that the presence of these spirits made it easier for the Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the upcoming year. The Druids would build huge sacred bonfires, the costumed villagers would make sacrifices of crops, animals and sometimes humans and everyone would attempt to tell each other’s fortunes. After these rituals, they would relight their homes’ hearth fires from the sacred bonfire.
The Romans adopted some of these Celtic practices and combined them with their own holidays that occurred around October 31st. For example, they had a holiday to celebrate Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and many believe this is where the tradition of apple bobbing originates.
In 800 A.D., Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st as All Hallows’ Day (“All Saints’ Day”) to honor the saints. Some people believe he was trying to replace pagan festivals with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The name Halloween comes from All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Hallows’ Day.
The Halloween custom of trick-or-treating comes from an early Christian practice called souling. On November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, Christians would walk from village to village begging for soul cakes which were square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes they received, the more prayers they promised to make for the dead relatives of the donors. They believed that the dead stayed in Limbo for a time after death and prayer could eventually send their souls to heaven.
American Halloween traditions come from a mix of European and Native American practices. It began mostly as a celebration of the harvest with villagers gathering to tell ghost stories, dance, sing and eat. Most of the Celtic customs and stories were brought over by Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine in the 1840s; immigrants brought various other customs to the United States from other countries as well. In the 1900s, there was a movement to make Halloween less about superstitions and mischief. This is when trick-or-treating, wearing costumes, carving pumpkins and having Halloween parties became more popular.
Americans have also adopted symbols and customs from other holiday’s occurring during this time of year. One holiday is El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), a holiday commonly celebrated in Mexico, Latin America, and Spain. Many families will set up altars or tables in memory of their deceased family members and decorate the tables with photos, candy, flowers, the relatives’ favorite foods and drinks, and candles and incense believed to guide their spirits home. Candy skulls and skeleton figures are popular and often show skeletons dressed in everyday clothing; this may be where our use of skeletons around Halloween originates. On November 2, families will tidy up their relatives’ gravesites, decorate the graves and have picnics in the cemeteries to celebrate their loved ones’ lives. Another holiday is Guy Fawkes’ Day, a day remembering the execution of Guy Fawkes on November 5, 1606. Fawkes was a member of a Catholic group convicted of trying to blow up the parliament building in an attempt to remove Protestant King James from power. Today, the day is remembered in Great Britain and citizens celebrate with fireworks, bonfires, and effigies of Fawkes are burned. Neither holiday is related to Halloween, but because they occur around the same time, some of their practices have blended with Halloween traditions.
Although Halloween does have roots in pagan Celtic practices that many people don’t agree with, our American traditions are a mixture of ancient superstitions, early Christian holidays, harvest celebrations, and practices from many different cultures, or you could just settle for the belief that the candy companies invented Halloween.