The Surprising History of Halloween

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. Being from the United States, I always saw it as the unofficial start to the holiday season. After all, Thanksgiving is only a month away, followed then by Christmas and New Year’s. In my family we always observed all the traditions – from decorating the house, to Trick or Treating and pumpkin carving. Getting older, I started to wonder where these traditions came from, and a History Channel documentary called “The Real Story of Halloween” gave me the answers I was looking for.

Although it wasn’t called Halloween at the time, the origins of the holiday go back over 2000 years ago to the Ancient Celtic people of The British Isles and Northern France. The Celts divided the year into two halves, the light half and the dark half. The Celtic holiday of Samhain (SOW-WIN), a celebration of the harvest and the transition from summer to winter, where we can trace the first roots of what has become Halloween. Although there were celebrations and most notably bonfires, Samhain also had a darker side to it, as it was said that on Samhain night, time and space would become flexible and the living and the dead could interact. This, along with the fears of the Celts of an unsuccessful harvest, made Samhain an overall dark holiday.

The Ancient Celts weren’t the only people to have celebrations that involved the dead. Ancient Romans celebrated a holiday around the 10th of May called the Lemuria. They believed that the spirits of the dead could come back to life to haunt the living. To quell them, the Ancient Romans would go around the house dropping black beans behind their shoulders.

During the first few centuries AD, the Christian Church adopted the pagan festivities of Samhain and Lemuria, and reshaped them in its own image. Lemuria was transformed into All Saints or All Hallows day and thereafter was moved to November 1st. Therefore, October 31st became known as All Hallows Evening. Overtime that was shortened to All Hallows Even, and eventually to Halloween.

But where do some of the other familiar traditions come from? Trick or Treating and Jack-O-Lantern carving also have distant roots in the British Isles. There was an old folk tale about a man named Jack who was so wicked that he was kicked out of Hell. In the story, the Devil takes pity on him, and gives him embers from Hell in a hollowed-out turnip to be able to light his way through the night. Scottish and Irish people for centuries would carve faces into turnips and light them, in part because of the old folktale. When waves of Scottish and Irish people immigrated to the United States in the 19th century, they brought this tradition with them, modifying it slightly using a North American pumpkin instead.

Trick or Treating also has its roots in Medieval times. During the Medieval period on All Hollows Evening, children would go to strangers’ houses and beg for soul cakes. In exchange for the treats, the kids would pray for souls that were said to have been stuck in Purgatory to get to Heaven. The term Trick or Treating doesn’t come about until the 20th century in the United States. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Halloween had become quite a raucous holiday in the United States. Children, particularly boys, would causes massive amounts of destruction in American towns and cities. Local communities came up with the idea of Trick or Treating to give kids something nonviolent to do on Halloween. Hence, if you gave the kids treats, they wouldn’t trick you!

Halloween will always be amongst my favorite holidays. It’s good fun, and there’s always something exciting for everyone to partake in. While there has been some criticism that it has become too commercialised, our commercialised 21st century Halloween is just the next iteration of a holiday that has always found a way to survive through the centuries by reinventing itself.

So, Happy Halloween!

By Daniel Donahue