Like the bubbling concoction in a witch’s cauldron, Halloween is a blend of various cultural ingredients. Over time, different cultures contributed bits and pieces to this autumnal celebration, making it a lively, widely celebrated holiday with diverse origins.
The version of Halloween we celebrate in the United States draws primarily from Celtic culture. Though little is known about ancient Celtic religion, most historians agree that the Celtic festival Samhain (often pronounced “sow-wen”) has colorful and eerie roots. The festival, celebrated on Nov. 1, marks the thinning of the veil, the supernatural curtain that separates the material and immaterial worlds.
The ancient Celts believed that spirits and deities could easily pass into the mortal sphere, resulting in a night of heightened chaos and trickery. Bonfires counteract the darkness and its unknown inhabitants, bringing light into a world overrun by mischievous creatures. In addition to scaring away supernatural beings, bonfires also provided light in a period of growing darkness; they perfectly accompanied the feasts and general merriment that marked the end of the harvest.
On Nov. 1, the long days of reaping grain finally came to a close. The Celts were not only concerned with neutralizing malicious spirits, but also celebrating the abundance generated by their hard work. Though we cannot say for sure what other practices Samhain entailed, the notion of heightened supernatural activity and harvest-time revelry certainly inspired our perceptions of Halloween today.
The older, more mysterious Samhain eventually blended with All Saints Day, a Christian observance celebrating martyrs who perished for their faith. The Byzantine emperor Phocas gifted Pope Boniface IV the Roman pantheon in 609 or 610, and Boniface soon transformed it into a church devoted to the Virgin Mary.
The day Boniface dedicated the church, May 13, marked one of the first official Christian celebrations of martyrs and saints. Interestingly enough, May 13 also designated the end of the Roman festival Lemuria, a feast in which Romans appeased restless household spirits with offerings of food. Scholars recognize this coincidental overlap, yet none can definitively ascertain Boniface’s intentions. Some cultural historians claim that All Saints Day is indeed a Christianized version of the Roman tradition, but regardless, the recognition of the dead united the two with a common theme.
Pope Gregory III changed All Saints Day to Nov. 1 between 731 and 741, but this change was only implemented in Rome. In 837, Pope Gregory IV officially declared November 1st to be All Saints Day for the whole of the Western Church, marking yet another autumnal celebration of the metaphysical realm. By the 1300s, the Western Church also celebrated a holiday called All Soul’s day.
“The version of Halloween we celebrate in the United States draws primarily from Celtic culture. Though little is known about ancient Celtic religion, most historians agree that the Celtic festival Samhain has colorful and eerie roots.”
All Soul’s Day, observed the day after All Saints Day, moved beyond honoring Saints and martyrs alone to remembering all good Christian souls. On an individual level, most people prayed for their deceased relatives, and this custom, in addition to All Saints Day, is still observed by various Christian denominations.
The night before All Saints Day became known as All Hallows’ Evening, with Saint’s Day itself named “All Hallows” (meaning “holy person” or “Saint). All Hallows’ Evening was often abbreviated as “Hallowe’en,” marking the origins of the name we know today. Much of the imagery and superstitions we associate with Halloween arose in the Middle Ages. The Black Death, first arriving in Europe in October, 1347, inspired a fear and fascination with death that resulted in images like skeletons and the Grim Reaper that accompany modern-day celebrations.
These symbols infiltrated the minds of Europeans across the continent, perfectly meshing with the multitude of pre-existing fall holidays that both celebrated and warded off the spirits of the dead. Massive witch hunts from the 15th to 16th century added another character to the Halloween rotation as witchcraft became synonymous with satanic worship.
Women, particularly older women, were targeted in these prosecutions, and emblems of domestic life like brooms, cauldrons and cats were transformed into demonic symbols that now greet trick-or-treaters.
Irish and Scottish immigrants first brought Halloween traditions to the United States in the 1840s. Over the centuries, pagan and Christian ideologies combined, leaving the Celts with a unique blend of customs that inspired many American practices.
The Celts added three major symbols to our American understanding of Halloween: the jack-o-lantern, trick-or-treating, and the use of costumes. Prior to emigrating, the Irish frequently made lanterns out of carved turnips and beets, and after arriving in the United States, the pumpkin became the new go-to-squash for illumination purposes. Trick-or-treating partially started with the Celtic practice of “souling,” an All-Souls Day custom where the poor visited homes and begged for money and food.
In exchange, they offered prayers for the home-owner’s deceased relatives, keeping in line with the Halloween theme of ghosts and ghouls. And “guising,” the adornment of costumes, formally developed in Scotland as a part of a young-adult tradition that soon merged with “souling.” Similar to “souling,” teens went door-to-door on Oct. 31 and provided various forms of entertainment, including singing and story-telling, in exchange for sweets.
“Guising” likely has its roots in masks worn during Samhain that were designed to scare away malicious spirits. “Souling” and “guising” formed the basis of trick-or-treating in the United States, and we have the Celts to thank for our Halloween sugar-highs.
Besides Celtic tradition, Halloween absorbed various harvest related customs from around the world. Many cultures celebrated the boons of the harvest, and Native American staples like corn and pumpkins frequently appear in modern fall celebrations. While certain traditions seem to be American in origin, such as the use of bats, owls and black and orange colors in Halloween decorations, many of our contemporary celebrations draw from unique rituals from around the world.
Halloween, much like the United States, is somewhat of a melting pot, making it one of the many Western holidays that utilize ancient and medieval customs. The next time you celebrate the spooky season, be mindful of the fun and frightening fables that shape the holiday we all know and love. Holidays often become much more marvelous when their origins are kept in mind.
*The author frequently consulted the chapter “Halloween” from Bruce David Forbes’ 2015 book America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. For more information, follow the link to his chapter: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctv1wxrr3.8.
Celine Butler is a fourth-year History and Psychology double major with a minor in French. CB869071@wcupa.edu.