HALLOWEEN: Origins, Meaning and Traditions
HALLOWEEN: Origins, Meaning and Traditions 1024 538 Sofia Alves

Ancient Origins

Halloween is a holiday celebrated every year on the 31st of October. Associated with creepy decorations, scary customs, and lots of candy, it’s a predominately American event, spreading its pumpkin fever to the rest of the world in recent years. But where and how did it all started?

The tradition finds its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, where people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. The Celts, a population who lived about 2,000 years ago in the area that’s now Ireland, the UK, and Northern France, used to celebrate their new year on November 1st. This day marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the winter, a time usually associated with death. For the Celts, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred on the night before the new year. Thus, October 31st was the night to celebrate Samhain, when they believed that the ghosts of the dead people were returning to earth.

The Romans ruled the Celtic lands for over 400 years and during that time two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day late in October when the Romans used to commemorate the passing of the dead. On the second day, they honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol is an apple, and this probably explains the tradition of bobbing for apples that are practiced today on Halloween.

At the end of the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated the 1st of November as the day of all saints. After that, All Saints’ Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The name Halloween comes from the evening before November 1st, called All Hallows Eve. By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread wide into the Celtic territory and gradually blended with the Celtic traditions. In 1000 A.D., the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day, a day aimed to honor the dead. Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of activities like trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, festive parties, donning costumes and eating treats.

Halloween Arrives in America

The Halloween celebrations were extremely limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant system. At some point, the customs of different European ethnic groups and the American Indians started to interact, and a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The very first celebrations included “play parties” which were public events held to honor the harvest. People would share stories of the dead, dance and sing.

By mid-19th century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween wasn’t yet celebrated in the whole country. But when, in the second half of the century, the United States were flooded with millions of Irish immigrants fleeing the Irish Potato famine, the celebration of Halloween became more popular around the country.

The History of “Trick or Treat”

In the early All Souls’ Day parades in England, 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. Copying the European traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go from house to house asking for money and food, a practice morphed into today’s famous Trick or Treat tradition. Young women even believed that on that night they could foresee the name and the appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with apple parings, yarns or mirrors.

In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to change Halloween into a holiday more concentrated on the community and on the neighbors getting together other than on ghosts, witchcraft, and pranks. This move actually had some results and at the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties were focused on food, games and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything spooky and grotesque out of the Halloween celebrations. Because of this, Halloween lost most of its creepy and religious overtones by the beginning of the 20th century.

The Party As We Know It

By the 1920’s and 30’s, Halloween had become a community-centered holiday, with town-wide parades and parties. Despite the efforts of many schools and communities, the celebrations quickly started to be frightened by vandalism, which was tamed only around the 1950s. Also due to the high number of young children during the fifties baby boom, the parties quickly moved from the town’s centers into classrooms or homes, where they could be more easily controlled and accommodated.

During these years, the centuries-old tradition of trick or treating was also revived; it was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebrations. This is how a new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow through the years. Today, Americans spend approximately 6 billion dollars annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second-largest commercial holiday after Christmas.


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