As you prepare to get dressed up in your favorite costume, you’re probably wondering how Halloween became a holiday. Spirit Halloween is extremely excited for Halloween 2020, on Saturday, October 31, and all that comes along with this day! In order to understand how to celebrate properly, we thought it was important to unpack the haunting history of Halloween.
While it is still a few months away, a spooky breeze has begun to slither around, as the Halloween spirit is thick like a big bag of candy after trick-or-treating! Halloween is actually celebrated in many countries throughout the globe, in addition to the United States. As such, countless individuals await this holiday to dress up in costumes, give and collect candy while trick-or-treating, and play games, among other customs.
Halloween is a unique holiday in that its origins branch from more than solely a popular, Westernized belief system. Because of this, Halloween is celebrated in a myriad of ways.
Why We Celebrate Halloween on October 31
Halloween is thought to date back to a Celtic tradition of 2,000 years ago, notably with the festival of Samhain. Celtic beliefs were prevalent largely in Gaelic speaking areas, including modern-day Ireland, England, Scotland, Northern France, and the Isle of Man. Essentially, Gaelic is a subset of the Celtic group of culture and language. Moreover, the Samhain festival begins at sunset on October 31 and concludes at sunset the next evening, November 1. This celebration is one of four Celtic festivals signaling different seasons throughout the calendar year. This connection to the seasons ultimately explains the current practice of these pagan-like celebrations to commemorate different times of year.
Furthermore, this shift of seasons marked the end of the calendar year in Celtic countries, especially Ireland. This transition into a new year is quite somber, as it symbolized a conclusion of the summer harvest and an entrance into a dark, cold wintery period. Like many modern references to darkness, many believe the transition into a murky winter brings a tinge of human death to the surface. It is believed that the boundary between the living and dead becomes blurry, allowing spirits, fairies, ghosts, etc. to contact the world of the living.
Because of this connection to the souls of the dead, Celtic believers look to their priests, or Druids, for signs of what’s to come. Due to the importance of nature in their culture, the Druids’ prophecies are extremely impactful in determining the future of the crops and life overall. The observance of this festival highlights practices still present in modern-day Halloween tradition. People would dress in costumes and animal masks to ward off evil spirits, while the Druids managed large fires in order to sacrifice animals and plants for their gods (the benevolent spirits present). Though clearly for different reasons, the alike incorporation of costumes to celebrate the holiday hints at Halloween’s origins.
In addition to the Celtic culture, Halloween has been influenced by Roman traditions. The Celtic areas grew popular among other groups, especially with the Roman Empire. Because of this, uneasiness arose and continued to cause conflict between the Celtics and Romans. These groups harbored tension not only in name but lifestyle and culture, as well, explaining the centuries of battles regarding land and belief systems, which would ultimately lead to some elements of Halloween today via a combination of the two spaces and customs. The Celtics of the time were more of a tribe, not necessarily tied to a specific location. Known for migrating often, their knowledge of and reliance on nature made them independent. They challenged opponents of many different tribes, with varying members in each.
The Celts first beat the Romans in the Battle of the Allia, fought in 390 BCE. After controlling the capitol for seven months, the Celtic army ceased their occupation of Rome after being paid to leave. It is legend that the amount of money paid was not what was previously agreed upon, so the Romans therein harbored greater animosity toward the Celtics, referring to them as Gauls, laced with a dirty reputation. Romans enclosed their city within a large wall to separate them from the “barbaric” Gauls. This altercation was the fuse that sparked centuries of conflict between the liberal and free Celtics and the strict and economically-motivated Romans.
As the fights certainly continued between these groups for many years, there were sectors of Celts that admired the manners and lifestyle of Roman aristocrats, while Roman writers and artists romanticized the Celtics as “noble savages.” Fighting increased and the Romans, led by Caesar, continued to conquer different pockets of Celtic land, feeding off the Roman fear of primitive Celtics ruining their progress. After a long series of battles, Emperor Claudius invaded the British Isles (the last Celtic stronghold) to claim the land for economic and political power. The year, 43 CE, marks the transition of Roman control over most of Celtic territory. This transition of Celtic lands into the Roman Empire finally gave the Romans power to dictate territory and religion.
The Roman Empire’s major religious beliefs initially revolved around a myriad of gods and goddesses relating to different aspects of the world and elements. After gaining control over Celtic areas, the Romans actually expanded upon Samhain, the Celtic festival signaling a transition into winter and the new year, with two, original Roman celebrations. For instance, Feralia represents a time in which Romans traditionally honor their dead. This day toward the end of October was the last of three Roman events that honored the dead in some way. Some believe that the spirits of the dead would appear near graves, so gifts were placed out for them, mirroring the idea of spirits entering the world of the living in the Celtics’ Samhain festival. The other Roman celebration taking after Samhain praises the Roman goddess of trees and fruits, Pomona. She is more than simply a garden and harvest goddess, as she represents the spirit of apples, which were considered very sacred. Apples from Pomona were associated with life, death, love, and magic, which all falls within the realm of Pomona’s domain. Even her name, Pomona, comes from the Latin pomum, meaning “apple,” partly due to the Romans’ domestication of wild apples into sweeter and potable treats which we enjoy today.
As the Roman Empire continued to expand, a myriad of diverse religions appeared within its boundaries. Some of these belief systems were integrated and accepted within the current Roman beliefs revolving around many gods and goddesses, but some “vulgar” religions (including the Cult of Bacchus and the Celtics) were rejected for their supposed orgies and sacrifice of humans, respectively. In addition, Western religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, were rejected for their belief in one god. Christianity, ultimately, is rooted in the Roman Empire due to Jesus Christ’s execution in Jerusalem, which was a city in a Roman province during this time period. This violent execution fueled Jesus’s disciples to spread his belief system, creating the birth of Christianity.
Though practiced by some Romans, there were multiple attacks on these communities, sparked by fear of negative outcomes from the Christians’ refusal to sacrifice to Roman gods. The first major persecution of Christians dates back to the Great Fire of Rome, in 64 CE. Many believe that Emperor Nero started the fire to rebuild Rome in his image without political obstacles, but Nero singled out a group of Christians and blamed them for the fire, flaming more animosity toward these believers. The next major display of violence against the Christians occurred in 250 CE when Emperor Decius passed a law requiring all citizens of the empire to make a sacrifice in front of Roman officials to their gods. Many Christians refused, so they were killed, along with other non-believers that this law targeted. After this law was repealed in 261 CE, the head of the Tetrarch (the four-emperor system in Rome), Diocletian, issued a series of edicts persecuting Christians beginning in 303 CE.
Following numerous years of Christian persecution, the Western successor, Constantine, began the “conversion” of the Roman Empire into a Christian nation. To begin, Constantine I and Maxentius fought in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. This victory was important because it marked Constantine the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. A year later (313 CE), Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which allowed Christianity and Roman-pagan religions to exist together, especially in the new eastern capital, Constantinople, in which Christian churches were placed near pagan temples. This inclusive mentality is thought to originate within a dream of winning the Battle of Milvian Bridge, but no one is completely certain. The following rulers either accepted or rejected Christianity until Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE. About a hundred years later, in 476 CE, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and its European migrants, notably Germanic tribes, crowning themselves as the new elite. The Eastern Roman Empire and the capital of Constantinople existed under the Byzantine Empire for many years after this.
The Western Roman Empire was primarily altered by the German nomadic Goths, with their 4th century form of Christianity, centered around the Trinity. Because of this, the fate of the Medieval Europe belonged to the German nomadic Franks. The Franks followed their traditional Germanic beliefs and then became Christian. Following this, the Franks adopted the doctrine of Trinity and Catholic teachings, as well as Catholic bishops ruling Gaul. This acceptance solidified the relationships between the Franks and the church and furthered with the pope crowning Charlemagne (a Frankish king) as the emperor of the Romans on Christmas day in 800 CE. This combination marked the creation of Roman Catholicism as a major branch of Christianity.
Prior to this major transition, the Pantheon in Rome, the most relevant connection to the “old world” in modern-day Rome, was converted into a church and an honorary symbol on May 13, 609 CE by Pope Boniface IV. The Pantheon became a place to honor the former pagan gods of Rome, as well as all Christian martyrs. This event became the Catholic holiday of All Martyrs Day within the Western church in the Roman Empire. Years later, Pope Gregory III, still wary of pagan beliefs, expanded the festival to include all past saints and martyrs and moved the event from May 13 to November 1.
How All Souls’ Day Connects to Halloween’s History
During this time period, notably by the 9th century, most Celtic lands had either embraced Christianity as a major religion or blended it with older Celtic belief systems. Once the Roman Empire became heavily Christian, the church made November 2, All Souls’ Day, in 1000 CE. This day honored the dead, which may have been an attempt to replace the Celtic festival (Samhain) with a church-approved holiday. People believe this because All Souls’ Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain with costumes, bonfires, and ceremonies. Moreover, “Hallowmas” was a three-day Catholic holiday where saints were honored and respects paid. Around the 11th century, the church decried that Hallowmas would last from October 31 to November 2, in order to resemble the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, which occurred on November 1. Despite eliminating Samhain from the calendar, the church promoted a series of days that heavily resembled Celtic tradition, apart from its title. As such, All Saints’ Day was a feast and celebration on November 1, and All Souls’ Day was an honorary day for the dead on November 2.
How Halloween Got Its Official Name
All Saints’ Day is still celebrated on November 1 today and was also referred to as All-hallows or All-Hallowmas, which means “All Saints’ Day” in the Middle English translation of Alholowmesse. Over time, the night before began to be known as All-Hallows Eve, which was originally the day before the Celtic festival of Samhain, still occurring on November 1. Because of this deep connection to traditional Celtic religion and blending of Catholic beliefs, All-Hallows Eve began to be called Halloween in present-day tradition. As the night before All Saints’ Day, All-Hallows Eve has a similar rationale as modern-day Halloween. While All-Hallows Eve is ultimately a Catholic holiday, Halloween has gained great commercial appeal in the present day, allowing Halloween to be enjoyed by those of many belief systems.
History of Halloween Costumes
Dressing up in costumes is definitely a highlight during Halloween, and people often look forward to and plan for this part of the holiday far in advance. Because of this notoriety, costumes present an interesting connection to the modern-day definition of Halloween.
Why do people dress up for Halloween? The idea of putting on an array of clothing items and masking your original identity to become someone or something else for an evening is extremely appealing. Dressing up has endured years of cultural changes and still contributes to modern-day Halloween practices.
It is believed dressing up in costumes dates back around 2,000 years to the aforementioned Celtic festival, Samhain. The Celts must have had progressive customs and beliefs, as a large majority of modern-day Halloween stems primarily from Samhain. This festival, marking the end of the year and the harvest, beginning of the winter, and the blending of the living and dead, incorporated costumes in a few ways. For example, as these communities tended to be smaller, some villagers in the towns would dress up in costumes to try and ward off the evil spirits, fairies, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures that could appear in their world on the evening of Samhain.
These costumes typically consisted of animal skins and heads in order to blend in and assist the Druids (Celtic priests) to make a sacrifice in the bonfire and obtain a prophecy. Conversely, some people would use the fear as an excuse for bad behavior; someone could prank another villager and then blame it on the spirits because the costumes made it challenging to differentiate the villagers from the supernatural entities. The concept of disguising as another was also used to attempt fooling the spirits into believing some of the costumed people were one of them. Samhain sparked the flames, romanticizing dressing up for warding off evil, tricking others, and assimilating into a group by pretending to be another.
Costumes were also prevalent in the 9th century during Halloween, notably cross-dressing among young boys and girls in Wales. These children dressing up as the opposite sex would travel from house to house begging for treats, which clearly represents an early form of trick-or-treating. While Christianity gained a large majority of Celtic territory over the next two centuries, the church desired to take control of the holidays in the previously Celtic lands.
The church adopted October 31 (the original date of Celtic Samhain) as a holiday in an attempt to maintain some Celtic traditions under the guise of All Hallows Eve as a Christian, church-sanctioned holiday, the day before All Saints’ Day (November 1). In fact, the word, Halloween, derives from the “All Hallows Eve” the church reinvented. Furthermore, All Saints Day was also referred to as “All-hallows or All-hallowmas,” which is even closer to Halloween. Dressing up in costumes continued to be an important part of these holidays, yet they took on more of a value than simply for a celebration because the souls of the dead were prayed for, instead of only feared. The church then continued to create Samhain-like holidays with All Souls’ Day, on November 2. All Souls’ Day was meant to honor the dead by dressing up as angels, devils, and saints.
As immigration into the United States increased in the 18th century, the Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their Celtic-inspired Halloween stories and traditions with them. The idea of costumes and celebrating Halloween spread around America very fast, as the idea of being unidentifiable was favorable. As well, many rural citizens valued Halloween’s pagan origin regarding death, evil spirits, sacrifices, etc. The original American Halloween costumes veered toward scary, based on the nature of the unknown. Costume parties and masquerades became popular in the 1920s and 1930s, partly due to the “Roaring 20s” being a period for new experiences and “reckless” attitudes.
American popular culture began to influence Halloween costumes. After WWII, superhero costumes became especially popular. In addition to the flow of American pop culture over the decades, Halloween costumes also shifted from complete disguises (Celtic Samhain disguises to hide from evil spirits) to full-on representations of characters that desire to be in the spotlight. As Halloween became more and more commercialized, it lost much of its original pagan and Christian roots. This explains the transition from hiding to celebrating the art of dressing up.
History of Trick-or-Treating
The history of trick-or-treating is also important to unwrap, as going from door to door to collect candy is basically inseparable from the Halloween costume tradition. Because of this tightly woven relationship between costumes and trick-or-treating, it is understandable that the first mention of anything resembling trick-or-treating is associated with the Celts and Samhain. Since this day was known for the appearances of evil spirits, some villagers dressed up in costumes of animals to ward the spirits off, while there were tables of food placed to pacify the unwelcome spirits. Centuries later, people would dress up as demons and other evil creatures and misbehave in exchange for food. This evolved into people dressing up and acting during the holidays in exchange for food and drinks, known as mumming. This practice is thought to be a precursor to modern-day trick-or-treating, as dressing up in costumes on Halloween is rewarded with candy, like the mummers’ acts were rewarded with food and drink.
Costumes also were prevalent in Medieval European groups, as these groups were largely flooded with Christian beliefs starting in the 9th century. Specifically, in 1000 BCE, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, which was celebrated with some Celtic traditions like dressing up to honor the dead. Trick-or-treating origins can be traced here, too, when poor families would attend the homes of the wealthy. They would receive “soul cakes” (pastries) in exchange for praying to the dead souls of the wealthy families’ relatives. The term was eventually coined as “souling,” and children began to do this but asked for food, money, etc. In addition, in other areas in Europe, such as Ireland and Scotland, children went to different houses for treats (i.e. fruit, nuts, or coins) in exchange for various “tricks,” like reading a poem, singing a song, etc., as opposed to praying for the dead relatives of the home like in souling. This practice of children seeking treats after performing their tricks, known as “guising,” greatly resembles a rudimentary version of modern-day trick-or-treating. These traditions were rekindled in the 1920s and 1930s by these Irish and Scottish immigrants in the United States. Because of this, trick-or-treating continued to grow in popularity, along with dressing up on Halloween.
History of Halloween Symbols
As there is a history of Halloween the holiday, there is also a history of the traditions that make Halloween what it is today. Over the centuries different activities and objects have become quintessential markers of the Halloween season. For example, there are several theories determining the origin of the game, “bobbing for apples,” in which players attempt to retrieve apples from a bucket of water without using their hands. The most popular explanation for the origin of this Halloween game is the festival praising the Roman goddess of trees and fruit, Pomona. Moreover, Pomona represented more than a positive harvest and gardening mentality; she was associated with sacred apples, carrying the weight of death, life, magic, etc. This second major Roman holiday commemorating Pomona and the significance of her apples is thought to largely contribute to the present-day practice of “bobbing for apples.”
Another less plausible history dates back even further to the Celtic festival of Samhain, signifying a movement from the harvest into the winter, as well as the New Year. This vaguely relates to the Roman festival, as it deals with the conclusion of the harvest season, yet the evidence on this idea is less comprehensive.
A final origin of bobbing for apples comes from the British Isles (i.e. Scotland and Ireland) dating back a few hundred years. Apples seemed to be connected to “divination,” or fortune-telling. The bobbing for apples game, during the very beginning of the 20th century, was described as grabbing an apple with your teeth, peeling it, and throwing the skin over your shoulder in order to see an initial of your true love’s name. Other customs involving apples existed in Great Britain, as well, showing the significance of the apple during Halloween.
In addition, the association between bats and Halloween has existed for many years. Bats have long been a symbol for death, uncertainty, fear, and supernatural entities. The most logical rationale for the connection between bats and Halloween comes from the Celtic festival, Samhain, the commemoration of the New Year, end of the harvest, and most importantly here: the blurring between the worlds of the living and dead. This is significant because the Celtic priests (Druids) would create large bonfires to rid the area of evil spirits while they prophesize the incoming winter and the end October 31. The large fires would attract bugs, and then the bugs would attract bats. This, as well as the spookiness of bats in relation to the evil spirits present on this evening, greatly contributes to the link between bats and Halloween. Also, bats are known to be a sub-form for vampires, as vampires can transform into bats in certain legends. This type of flight and shape-shifting ability is popularized notably from Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. The fluidity of the vampire turning into a bat is analogous with the blending of the worlds of the living and dead during this festival, further relating bats to Halloween.
A third popular Halloween symbol is, of course, the Jack-o’-lantern, since Halloween would not be the same without the carving of pumpkins. Jack-o’-lanterns are a modern-day Halloween custom, largely practiced in America, in which a face is carved in a pumpkin and a light is placed inside of it. Oftentimes, the face is slightly demonic. In the British Isles, where this tradition originated, turnips were actually used, as opposed to pumpkins.
The name, “Jack-o’-lantern,” derives from the legend of “Stingy Jack.” Basically, a man, Stingy Jack, invites the Devil to have a drink, but he doesn’t want to buy the drinks. He convinces the Devil to transform into a coin to purchase the drinks, but Stingy Jack tricks the Devil by keeping him in his pocket, next to a silver cross, preventing him from turning back. Stingy Jack only releases the Devil after he agrees to leave Jack be for a year, without claiming his soul if he dies. Later, Stingy Jack tricks the Devil again into climbing a tree to grab fruit where there is a cross in the tree bark. Stuck, the Devil concedes that he will leave Jack alone for another ten years, along with his soul. Soon after, Stingy Jack dies and is barred from heaven by god and hell by a scorned Devil, left only with a burning coal. Jack put the light into a turnip and roams the Earth. The Irish myth leads people to call him “Jack of the Lantern,” and eventually, Halloween’s present name of “Jack-o’-lantern.” This also explains the initial use of turnips in the British Isles.
This coming Halloween, we should all try to remember the multitude of cultural origins of Halloween! This way, the holiday will be even more enjoyable!
Now that you know the full history of Halloween, we’re sure you’re even more excited to celebrate. Here at Spirit Halloween, we want everyone to trick or treat yourself to some tasty treats this year! You can check out our wide selection of Halloween costumes, accessories, and decorations to make the most of this exciting holiday.