The history of Halloween is a weird mixture of ancient traditions, political gain, propaganda, and cultural mixing.
If you asked people to tell you where Halloween came from you likely wouldn’t get a solid answer. Most people who do answer confidently are likely to tell you it originated from the practices of druids or Satanists before being spun into a benign, commercialized, holiday. In actuality, these assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth.
Halloween originated with the Celtic holiday of Samhain which began on October 31st. The Celts believed the year was broken up into four distinct sections and followed a pattern of death and rebirth each year, with November 1st commencing the new year. Samhain was partially to celebrate the harvesting of the crops for the winter and the recalling of herds back to stables.
Maintaining the belief that this was a time of death and rebirth, the Celts also believed that on the 31st the barriers separating the world of the living and the world of the dead were at their weakest, allowing spirits and people to interact with each other.
The Celtic people believed that the souls of people who died that year would pass on while spirits from previous years would come back to interact with the living. They lit bonfires both to guide recently deceased spirits to the next life while warding off malevolent spirits. Sometimes participants would wear masks to hide their appearance from spirits, but the practice of wearing costumes would not become standard practice until much later.
It was also believed that magic, notable divination, was especially strong during Samhain. There were various practices developed with the hope of predicting the faiths of lives, relationships, harvests, and family life. One practice involved holding a mirror while walking backward to the basement, the face they would see in the mirror would be their next lover.
A sizable portion of Europe still practiced pagan traditions. To combat this the Catholic church began supplanting traditional pagan holidays with newly formed Christian holidays. The church tried to replace Samhain with All Saints Day, a holiday dedicated to all Christian saints who didn’t already have a holiday dedicated to them.
In addition to replacing their holidays, church missionaries began to label parts of the Celtic religion as evil. Druids became devil and demon worshippers, the Celtic gods became associated with demons, and the Celtic underworld became synonymous with hell.
Despite the church’s best efforts the traditions and celebration prevailed, despite being transformed. Now October 31st hosted ghosts, witches, demons, fairies, and a slew of other creatures. These creatures were also now seen as entirely malevolent. Eventually, people began leaving out food or drink to appease these malicious creatures with the hope that the creature would take pity on them.
As time went on people began dressing as these creatures and would go door to door putting on shows or harassing people in exchange for food and drink. These customs were mostly constrained to Ireland and Scotland. In England people would give out “soul cakes” and people (usually people in the lower classes) would go “a’ soulin’” for these cakes.
The next few decades were rough for Halloween. After the Protestant Reformation began, England mostly stopped celebrating the holiday. Since Halloween is the eve of All Saints Day, and the new religion did not believe in saints, most didn’t see any purpose in celebrating all together, despite Halloween by this point largely being neither pagan nor Christian.
In the early American colonies, the celebration of Halloween was mostly outlawed in part because of the church’s propaganda becoming truth for some people and the large amounts of vandalism that usually occurred that night.
Halloween didn’t come to America until the mid 19th century when a large number of Irish immigrants came to America. The holiday was mostly the same in America as it had been in Ireland at the time.
The commercialization of Halloween didn’t start until the early 1900s, with costumes and decorations appearing in the 1930s. To combat the vandalism that often occurred on Halloween night, people and government leaders began labeling Halloween as an exclusively children’s holiday. By the 1950’s the custom of trick-or-treating was nearly unanimous and the holiday was now considered only for children. With the exception of adult Halloween parties, traditions have largely remained the same since.
Ty Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tydavisACW.