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  • Writer's pictureLeah Sacks

Halloween History

This week, we were given an open opportunity to write about whatever we would like for our blog post. As the meeting falls only two days into November, I have taken this opportunity to do a little research on one of my favorite holidays, Halloween. While I have my own traditions and things I like to do to celebrate, Halloween is one of the holidays that is done differently in different part of the world. This time of the year means different things to different people, and it has a history that days back longer than many holidays on the calendar.


While I've introduced this post as a discussion about Halloween, we really have to talk about a couple of other holidays and festivals in order to have a full discussion about what we think of as Halloween.



In ancient times, pagans, specifically the Celtic people and their religious subset, the druids, celebrated the Celtic New Year on November 1st. The holiday was intended to celebrate the end of the Harvest, thanking the Sun God, and to welcome in the winter, honoring Samhain (SAH-win), the Lord of the Dead. Celebration of this time of the year included a festival-like atmosphere, with dancing, singing, and storytelling, as well as burning sacrifices in honor of both gods. The colors orange and black, common to modern Halloween festivities, date back to this festival as well, with orange associated with the harvest, and black associates with the dead and death. There was also a belief that the night preceding Samhain where the wall between the living world and the world of the dead was the thinnest. As part of the Samhain festivities, people would disguise themselves to confuse the spirits into mistaking the living as the dead, so that the living would remain unbothered by those that had passed on.


When Christianity rose to higher prominence, it initially existed in tandem with the pagan holidays of the time. In order to assimilate the public into Christianity, and slowly impose their rule over the people, new Christian holidays were often based off of and created around the pagan holidays. In this case, November 1st was already associated with death and spirits in the eyes of the public, so the Church declared it to be All Saints Day or All Hallows Day, the day to recognize the hallowed souls, those of saints and martyrs who had passed that year. The following day, November 2nd, was declared All Souls Day, in honor of all the other religious souls who had passed on that year, but that were not saints or martyrs. These days were celebrated with feasts and festivals.


As Christianity developed further, there came a point where the continued pagan practices of the country-folk around Samhain, such as warding off the spirits and doing fertility rites, were no longer to be tolerated. Witchcraft, a concept largely developed by the church out of religious and sexist ideologies, was tied to these types of practices and a divide appeared between the devoutly Christian and those who still wished to ward off evil spirits. This is when All Hallows Eve, the day and evening before All Hallows Day became more distinctly assocaited with witchcraft and mischief, in direct opposition to the church and its two holidays - All Saints Day (All Hallows Day) and All Souls Day.



The early pagan sacrifices, which made use of fire, and the bonfires that continued to be held around these festivals, became associated with warding off wandering spirits and lost souls. The burning of witches was derived from these ideas as well.


Due to the origins of Halloween residing with the Celtic people, Halloween is primarily celebrated in countries with ties to the Celtic people - primarily Ireland, Scotland, and the USA. Halloween was primilarly celebrated as a harvest festival in the early days of the United States, but an influx of Irish immigrants after the Irish Potato Famine, helped spread and popularize the holiday across the country. Movements developed over time that argued in favor of making Halloween more family and community focused, which resulted in much of the mysticism, superstition, warding off of souls, and mischief dying out over time.


Trick-or-treating as a practice has a couple possible origins, though they are all sort of related, and I'll discuss two of them here. In one form or another, it likely originates from people begging for food handouts. In a part of Ireland, the celebration of Samhain/Halloween, which is still called Oidhche Shamna, Vigil of Samhain in some places, included a Procession of Muck Olla, where someone would beg for offerings in the name of Muck Olla, likely a druidic deity. The leader of the procession wore a horse mask. These two aspects likely contribute to the development of the continued tradition of dressing up and asking for treats. Similarly, while early celebrations of both Samhain and the two following Christian holidays included leaving out food and wine for the dead, Christian leadership later encouraged a practice called "souling." Poor people would beg for food at the festivals, and attendees would give them "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for their dead relatives. This practice eventually was called "going-a-souling" and at some point, children began going around to neighborhood houses asking for treats and cakes.


What I've described above is a very generalized explanation of the history of Halloween, but it is also important to note that there are other similar holidays in other cultures that share lots of characteristics, but are not actually derivatives of Halloween. These are often "Day of the Dead" holidays. An Egyptian culture at some point celebrated a Day of the Dead holiday on the Winter Solstice, on the anniversary of the death of Osiris, the Egyptian death god. They would like oil lamps to guide the wandering spirits. Similarly, Greece has a Feast of Pots in February, where food is left out for the dead, but house are warded with pitch to keep spirits away. Finally, one of the most well known holidays with similar themes is Dia de Los Muertos, which translates to Day of the Dead. This is a Mexican holiday where the souls of the dead are able to return to the world of the living for short reunions and visits with their living family members. Souls of the dead, skeletons, and food offerings are common components of this holiday that often make it appear to be related to Halloween, though they are distinct in their purpose and overall origin.


carmichaellibrary, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


On the day that I will be discussing this post, it will be November 2nd, which is All Souls Day as well as the final day of Dia de Los Muertos. So, best wishes to all of the souls passing through on these days, and I hope everyone had a festive halloween!



My research on this topic was pulled mainly from these three sources:

Linton, Ralph. “HALLOWEEN.” Scientific American, vol. 185, no. 4, 1951, pp. 62–67. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24945292. Accessed 31 Oct. 2023.

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