The Haunting History of Halloween

The Haunting History of Halloween

Emma Burns

For many, Halloween is a beloved holiday full of family traditions and childhood memories. But where did this wildly popular Holiday come from? Well, it began with the Celts, a group of peoples who lived in the area of modern-day France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom over two thousand years ago. Celtic festivals celebrated the new year on November 1st and marked the end of summer with the beginning of winter, the season associated with death. 

It was believed that on the night before a new year, the line between the land of the living and the land of the dead blurred, and the spirits of the dead returned to Earth. This time was called Samhain. The spirits would cause trouble and damage crops as well as help the Druids and Celtic priests to make predictions for the future. These predictions were heavily relied on for individual comfort during the long, cold winters. Druids would build huge, sacred bonfires so people could gather around to burn crops and animals as a sacrifice to their Celtic deities. Costumes of animal heads and skins were worn and fortunes were told. At the end of the night, the hearths of homes would be re-lit with the same fire from the sacred bonfire in an effort to protect the house. 


Samhain wasn’t the only influential factor in the development of our modern-day Halloween. In 43 CE, much of the Celtic territory was taken over by the Romans, causing the two cultures to blend. Two Roman festivals were changed by this cultural blending. The first was the festival of Feralia. It was a late October day where the passing of the dead was honored. The second was the day honoring the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. Since the symbol of Pomona is an apple, it is said that this was the origin of the modern-day pastime of “bobbing for apples.”


566 years later, in 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon to Christian martyrs. This began the feast of All Martyrs, which later expanded to All Saints Day, which is on November 1st.  Over time, the influence of Christianity had spread immensely, and by the 9th century, it started to mix and evolve with old Celtic rituals.

In 1,000 CE, November 2nd was deemed All Souls Day by the church. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain with bonfires, parades, and costumes of saints and devils. As time went on, both All Saints Day and All Souls Day started to evolve. All Saints Day became All-Hallows while All Souls Day became All-Hallows Eve and eventually, Halloween was formed. 


Due to the rigid beliefs and religion present, there were limited Halloween celebrations in colonial America. However, the holiday was popular in the American south. Both European and Native American cultures were blended to make a unique Halloween for America. The first celebrations included parties celebrating the year’s harvest by dancing, singing, sharing stories of the dead, and telling one another’s fortunes. 

By the early 19th century, autumn parties and events were quite common but had yet to spread to the entire country. Later in the 19th century though, America was filling up with new immigrants, including the millions coming from Ireland (fleeing the potato famine), who helped popularize the holiday.

Our modern-day Halloween is immensely different from what has been described, and that is simply because traditions tend to change over time. As new trends and cultures emerged and became popular, the holiday would change with it. So next time you go get dressed up for Halloween, think about all of the stories behind your actions.