The History of Halloween is full and fascinating. Today, it is a secular celebration born from a variety of religious traditions. As a youth, I loved the magic and mystery of Halloween. I took delight in wearing costumes and going out after dark. When I was older, my friends and I took my younger brother trick-or-treating so we could continue to participate.
Now, as an adult, I enjoy passing out candy to the neighborhood kids and going to parties with my friends. Some of my friends put a lot of effort into celebrating Halloween. Their costumes are incredibly creative. Many of my friends, however, also celebrate the old traditions that inspired the holiday. We wanted to give you a glimpse into the long history of those traditions.
Many of Halloween’s traditions originated from the pre-Christian Celtic festival Samhain.
Samhain (pronounced Sah-win) is an ancient festival that is over 2000 years old. It was a time when the boundaries between worlds became thin. Spirits, wee folk (such as elves, fairies/fae, or leprechauns), and demons could cross over into our world. Some of these spirits were friendly. Many, however, were mischievous and even dangerous. People lit bonfires and disguised themselves to protect themselves from malicious spirits. They also played tricks on each other, and blamed them on the spirits and fae.
The Romans wrote the earliest records of Samhain. When the Romans conquered the Celts, the Roman festivals for Feralia blended with Samhain. Feralia was a day honoring the dead in late October. It isn’t clear if Samhain’s association with the dead predated the Roman influence or if it came from the Romans.
After missionaries imposed Christianity on the Celts, the Christian and Celtic traditions blended.
On 13 May, 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV established the first All Saints’ Day in Rome. This holiday honored the saints and martyrs of the Christian Church. He made the following day All Souls’ Day. All Souls’ Day is dedicated to the souls of those who have died and are still in purgatory and so haven’t reached heaven yet.
In the mid-eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to the 1st and 2nd of November. By placing the holiday close to Samhain in the Celtic lands it promoted Christianity. It was a very successful strategy to replace Samhain with All Saints’ Day. Many of the Samhain traditions transitioned into All Saints Day celebrations. People lit bonfires to protect themselves from witches and demons. They wore the costumes of angels, saints, devils, and shared food in honor of the dead.
In middle English, the day was called Alholowmesse. This eventually became All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas. Saint day celebrations began the evening before, so the 31st of October became All-Hallows Eve. Halloween is a contraction of All-Hallows Eve. In Scottish, “een” or “e’en” is the contraction of the word even/evening. The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the poem “Halloween” in 1785 using the Scottish term for the holiday. This helped spread the name that we use today for the Holiday.
Irish All Hallows celebrations included guising, souling, and jack-o-lanterns.
Guising, the wearing of Halloween costumes, comes from both Samhain and All Saints’ Day traditions. The Celts blackened their faces with ash and wore disguises of animal skins to hide themselves from malicious spirits and fairies. Christians wore the costumes of saints to honor the saints on All Saints’ Day. After the Irish and Scottish were Christianized, the two traditions blended into a practice called guising or mumming. People honored saints and angels by dressing up as them. Others dressed as witches and demons to protect themselves from these dangerous beings.
Souling is the exchanging of food for prayers for the dead. Trick-or-Treating evolved from this element. It was a tradition of both Samhain and All Souls’ Day celebrations. On Samhain, people played practical jokes on each other and blamed the fairies and evil spirits. They dressed in costumes and exchanged food and drink to appease angry and unfriendly spirits. With Christianity, these traditions continued, but they blamed demons and witches instead. For Souling, the poor visited the homes of the wealthy. They received pastries called soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead. Over time, children took over souling, asking for gifts of food, drink, and money.
Jack-o-Lanterns were named after an Irish legend of a man named Jack who tricked the Devil. After he died, Jack’s spirit wandered, carrying a lantern carved out of a turnip. The Irish carved turnip lanterns with scary faces to carry when they went souling. They believed that these lanterns protected them from restless spirits. When the Irish arrived in the Americas, they used pumpkins instead. Pumpkins were more readily available, larger, and easier to carve than turnips.
Halloween has changed drastically over the years, and is most popular in the United States and Canada.
Because of the Puritan influence, Halloween wasn’t commonly celebrated in colonial America or the early days of the United States. The Puritans didn’t celebrate many common Christian holidays. The potato famine in 1945-1852 caused the Irish to flock to the Americas. They brought with them their All Hallows celebrations to the United States and Canada in the mid 19th century.
Trick-or-treating, as we know it, didn’t become widespread in the Americas until the 20th century. Before that, people in the United States and Canada celebrated Halloween with practical jokes and parties. A Canadian newspaper first used the term “Trick-or-Treat” in 1927. Children went door to door asking for sweets, promising to play tricks on the homeowners if they were denied. Today, children still go door to door asking for candy while wearing costumes, but without the threat of tricks.
Despite its Celtic roots, the celebration waned for many years in England. In fact, for a time, many of the Halloween traditions shifted to celebrating Guy Fawkes Day on 5 November instead. However, in the late 20th century Halloween reemerged in England and all of Great Britain. Celebrated similarly as it is in the USA, it has become a separate tradition from Guy Fawkes Day.
In the United States, Halloween has become a secular holiday independent of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.
Decorations are put up, yards are decorated, costumes are worn and candy is handed out. Over 179 Million Americans celebrate Halloween. They spend $9.1 million on it every year on candy, costumes, and entertainment.
Halloween is a favorite holiday here at The Researcher’s Gateway. If you celebrate Halloween, we hope you have a wonderful, safe, and happy Halloween!
Galen & RoseAnna
and The Researcher’s Gateway Team
Explore our special Holidays around the World section at The Researcher’s Gateway!
- Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead
- Why I love the Day of the Dead Celebrations
- Advent Calenders
- Hanukkah: A Brief History of Hanukkah, The Dreidel: History and How to Play
- Saint Nicholas: Who was Santa Claus (December 6th)
- Saint Lucia’s Day (December 13th)
- Yuletide: Midwinter Yule
- The History of the Yule Log
- Christmas Tinsel: The Legend of the Christmas Spider
- The Christmas Tree: Olde Tannenbaum
- Christmas Stockings: A Brief History