Halloween, observed on the evening of October 31, is a popular celebration around the world, loved by adults and children alike. It takes place on the day before All Saints' Day and is also known as All Hallows Eve, Hallowmas Eve, and Samhain. In the United States, it is not a public holiday, therefore businesses and stores follow normal opening hours. As well as being the second most commercial holiday in the country, a quarter of all candy sales happen during the season.
In ancient Britain and Ireland (5th century BCE), on the full moon closest to November 1, the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain - Summer’s End, the Celtic New Year. Samhain was the god of the dead. They believed that the barrier between the physical and the spirit world disappeared and that the spirits of the dead, good and evil, returned to earth. These spirits would cause people harm if not offered gifts, such as food and drink, sweet goods. People would often dress as spirits so that evil spirits would not recognize them.
As it marked the end of summer, it was necessary to perform various rites and sacrifices to awaken the dying sun. All fires were extinguished, sacred fires were lit for the new year, and from these people lit new fires in their homes, to safeguard them during the approaching winter. These sacred bonfires would repel evil spirits, and they were also used to offer crop and animal sacrifices to Celtic deities. Druids, Celtic priests, wore animal-skin costumes and told each other’s fortunes. Druids went from house to house, carrying lanterns and demanding money as offerings.
Samhain was also celebrated by indulging in drunkenness and conduct otherwise forbidden in daily life.
From 43 CE onwards, the Romans ruled the Celts. Roman customs were merged with Celtic traditions. For example, the goddess Pomona was a goddess of fruit, trees, and fertility. Apples and hazelnuts were considered sacred and used for diving information on marriage, childbearing, death - very important questions in an agricultural community. Apples with certain markings were placed in a tub of water or hung from a tree. By grabbing one using only the mouth, a young man or woman was supposed to be able to foretell his or her future spouse.
Christianity then spread to Celtic lands. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV is said to have designated May 13 as a time to honor all martyrs - All Martyrs Day. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III chose November I instead to honor martyrs, saints, and relics as well. All Saints’ Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. All Souls’ Day came after All Saints’ Day. The All Saints’ Day celebration was also known as All-hallows or All-hallowmas, and the night before it, the same night as Samhain, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween, from the 18th century onwards.
The Encyclopedia of Religion points out: “Samhain remained a popular festival among the Celtic people throughout the Christianization of Great Britain. The British church attempted to divert this interest in pagan customs by adding a Christian celebration to the calendar on the same date as Samhain. . . . The medieval British commemoration of All Saints’ Day may have prompted the universal celebration of this feast throughout the Christian church.”
The church also urged its followers to dress like spirits, angels, and devils to go from house to house and request small goods, such as food, in exchange for prayers for dead relatives, “going-a-souling”.
Candles or burning coals were placed in carved out turnips or other root vegetables and were carried or placed in windows to repel Stingy Jack (a fabled drunken man doomed to roam the earth by Satan) or other spirits. Later, this was also thought to represent a soul trapped in purgatory. Pumpkins were used instead when the custom was brought to America. The New Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “throughout the Middle Ages it was a popular belief that the souls in purgatory could appear on this day as will-o’-the-wisps, witches, toads, etc.”
Starting in the 19th century, thousands of people moved to the United States from Ireland and Britain. They brought their Halloween customs with them and combined these with traditions coming from Germany and other parts of the world. In the early 20th century, Halloween became a nationwide holiday in the United States. Today, it is a multibillion-dollar industry celebrated worldwide.
Celebrations and Symbols Today
Many of these ancient customs and rituals are still followed today. Celebrations include costume parties; trick-or-treating - children going from house to house, asking for candy treats and playing tricks on unwitting householders; apple-bobbing; pumpkin-carving; bonfires.
The symbols of those ancient Celtic customs can still be seen in costumes and decorations today: vampires, witches, zombies, goblins, ghosts, carved pumpkin heads (Jack O'Lanterns), bats, cats, toads, skeletons, spiders, and so on.