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The History of Halloween, with references

The History of Halloween

Halloween is one of the world's oldest holidays, dating back to pagan times. But it is celebrated today by more people in more countries than ever before. there's a simple reason: it is fun and it is good, clean, harmless fun for young and old alike! Also see Halloween around the world and see this page of current Halloween facts and statistics.


Since much of the history of Halloween wasn't written down for centuries; some of it is still sketchy and subject to debate. But the most plausible theory is that Halloween originated in the British Isles out of the Pagan Celtic celebration of Samhain. It goes back as far as 5 B.C. It was believed that spirits rose from the dead and mingled with the living on this day. The Celts left food at their doors to encourage good spirits and wore masks to scare off the bad ones. Some historians believe that the Romans who invaded England added a few of their own traditions to the celebration of Samhain; such as celebrating the end of the harvest and honoring the dead; others say that since the Romans never conquered the Celts (Ireland and Scotland) there was no mingling of cultures, and that the Celts celebrated the end of the harvest and honored their dead in this way, anyway!

Many centuries later, the Roman Catholic church, in an attempt to do away with pagan holidays, such as Halloween (and Christmas, which had been the Roman pagan holiday of Saturnalia) established November 1st as All Saint's Day (in French, la Toussaint), in celebration of all the saints who do not have their own holy day. This attempt to detract attention from the pagan celebration of Samhain didn't work. The celebrations on the eve of All Saint's Day continued to grow and change! During the massive Irish immigration into America in the 1840s, Halloween found its way to the United States, where it continued to flourish!

It is also believed that the Christian practice of celebrating the evening before a holiday, such as Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, etc. came from the Jewish traditions. Jewish days and holidays begin with the evening before. Always have, as Judaism follows a lunar calendar in which the sunsets begin the new day. Many Christian groups now observe holy days from sundown on one day until sundown on the following day.

The modern name, Halloween comes from "All Hallows' Evening," or in their slang "All Hallow's Even", the eve of All Hallows' Day. "Hallow" is an Old English word for "holy person," and All Hallows' Day is just another name for All Saints' Day, eventually, it became abbreviated to "Hallowe'en" and then "Halloween."

Samhain and the Celts

The Celts lived hundreds of years ago in what is now Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales and northern France. The Celtic people, around 800 B.C., commonly kept sheep and cattle. When the weather got colder, the shepherds brought their animals down from the hills to closer pastures. Life changed dramatically between summer and winter for the Celts. In the winter months, everybody stayed inside or close to home, fixing things indoors, sewing, spending time together, and generally trying to avoid being outside where one froze to death, go sick, or otherwise was killed or eaten by something that was larger and hungry. The change of seasons from growing, plenty, and life to winter, dark, shortages and death was at the meaning behind the holiday.

The final harvest of the year was marked by a celebration called Samhain (pronounced sow-en) and was also the ancient Celtic New Year. Samhain, which translates to "end of summer," usually occurred around the end of October, when the weather started to get cold in Ireland and Scotland. (yes, I know it's not a big difference from "summer" there, but they apparently can tell the difference! :)

Celts believed that transitions, times when things change from one state to another, had magical properties. Samhain marked what was for them one of two of the biggest turning points of the year (Spring being the other) a change in the weather as well as a change in life. The Celts also believed this magical time created an opening to the dead. They believed the worlds of the dead and the living were closest at the time of Samhain, and that the spirits of the dead were freed to travel once more among the living, in part because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld.

People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honor of the dead, to help them on their journey to the otherworld, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all manner of beings were afoot: ghosts, fairies, and demons! Many of the activities of the Samhain festival were related to these beliefs. Many of those practices then evolved into modern day Halloween traditions.

Celtic Traditions

On October 31st after the crops were all harvested and put into storage for the winter ahead, the cooking fires in the homes would be extinguished. The Druids, the Celtic priests, would meet in the hilltop in the dark oak forest (oak trees for their size and strength and mistletoe for remaining green in the winter and having berries in the cold were considered sacred). The Druids would light new fires and offer sacrifices of crops and animals to thank the gods for the harvest and appease the gods of the coming winter.

The morning after, the Druid priests would give an hot ember from the fires to each family, who would then take them home to start new cooking fires. The fireplace and fire were a big deal to the Celts, as they kept the homes warm and free from evil spirits.

The festival lasted for 3 days. Many people would parade in costumes made from the skins and heads of their animals representing various gods of nature.

All Saints' Day

Societies and religions honored their martyrs for thousands of years. Catholics canonized saints after death. Saints are effectively "ranked" higher since they have special status (sainthood, holiness) bestowed upon them, saints are held in esteem as role models, and God may perform miracles on earth through them. Roman Catholics, and some other Christians, honor saints, and ask them for guidance in daily life.

Many saints have their own day to honor them. But with so many thousands of canonized saints, only a small percentage are recognized specifically. Pope Boniface IV officially established All Saints' Day in order to honor all the saints at one time.

All Saints' Day originally fell on May 13. In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries regarding the beliefs and customs of the peoples they wanted to convert. Rather than try to banish native peoples' customs and beliefs, the pope had his missionaries to incorporate them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship. In 835 AD, Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1 to try to take over the pagan holiday. Officially, the Church chose this new date to mark the papal dedication of a church honoring the saints. Few historians accept that as the Catholic Church had a long-standing policy of incorporating non-Christian traditions into its holidays. For example, many historians believe, for example, that the church set Christmas on December 25 so that it would correspond with pagan winter solstice festivals (Shepherds don't "watch over their flock by night" in the winter, as the flock is inside or would die in the cold!). That appears to be fairly certain. The connection between Samhain and the Catholic All Saints Day is less certain.

Ronald Hutton (an English historian who specializes in the study of Early Modern Britain, British folklore, pre-Christian religion and contemporary Paganism and author of The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 1996) and another historian, Steve Roud (the creator of the Roud Folk Song Index and an expert on folklore and superstition, of Maresfield, East Sussex, England, and author of The English Year , and A Dictionary of English Folklore), say there is no connection between Samhain and the Catholic All Saints Day, November 1st; that there was no attempt to "Christianize" the pagan Celtic holiday.

In any case, when All Saints' Day moved to November 1, many of the pagan Samhain traditions were brought into the holy day's activities. This may have helped bring descendants of the ancient Celts into Christianity, but it created some problems for the church. Much of the Samhain traditions centered on the supernatural and spirit world, ideas that don't have much of a place in Christianity. Recognizing saints, who were by definition dead, covered a lot of the same ground, but the creepy and supernatural aspects like the dead spirits walking the earth again at midnight certainly wasn't part of Christianity. Young men were now instructed to go door to door begging for food for the town poor. Villagers were allowed to dress up in costume to represent a saint. Now, instead of dressing up to chase away evil spirits, and celebrating pagan beliefs, they were dressed up to honor the saints. Like anyone cared! :)


One legend has it that on one All Hallows Eve that a priest was walking by on a country road when on the hill he saw the bonfires burning. He saw people dancing around the fire in costumes with shafts and torches in their hands. With the moon as a backdrop to the fires the people appeared to be flying in the air. The man hurried to the village to tell that witches were flying and evil was afoot. Presumably, this is where the myth of witches on broomsticks flying on Halloween comes from.

There is a lesser known church holiday called All Soul's Day that came into being at the end of the 10th century. It was an occasion to recognize all Christian dead. .

All Souls' Day

All Souls' Day, observed on November 2, is celebrated with Catholic masses and festivities in honor of the dead. The living pray on behalf of Catholics who are in purgatory, the state in the afterlife between the land of the living and the other worlds where souls are purified before proceeding to heaven. Souls in purgatory, who are members of the church just like living Christians, must suffer so that they can be purged of their sins. Through prayer and good works, living members of the church may help their departed friends and family.

It was on Halloween in 1517 that Martin Luther began to try to reform the Catholic Church. It ended in the formation of the Protestant Church, which didn't believe in saints (in the Roman Catholic sense of of specific individuals).

Without Saints, there would be no All Hallow's eve, no Halloween and no partying, so in Britain, when a conspiracy to blow up the English Parliament and King James I in 1605 was foiled, this became a convenient means to solve two issues at once. The celebrations that people were accustomed to just moved to November 5 and became Guy Fawkes Day. Guy Fawkes was not-too-bright accomplice who became the fall 'guy" (his name is also where we get the word "guy" from) in a Catholic plot to blow up the English Parliament, which at that time was Protestant. So, although technically, the celebration was to commemorate the failure of the plot, nonetheless, it was Halloween. Bonfires were lit across the country. People made lanterns from carved out turnips and children went begging for "a penny for the guy" (and they were to use the pennies to buy more wood for the bonfire upon which Guy Fawkes was to be burned alive. gruesome, huh? I knew you'd like that..

Realizing that it could not completely get rid of the supernatural aspects of the celebrations, the Catholic church began characterizing the spirits as evil forces associated with the devil. This is where much of the more malevolent Halloween imagery, such as evil witches and demons come from.

All Souls' Day has morphed and exists today, particularly in Mexico, where All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day are collectively observed as "Los Dias de los Muertos" (The Days of the Dead). First and foremost, the Days of the Dead is a time when families fondly remember the deceased, visit their graves and clean the gravesites and leave fresh flowers. But it is also a time marked by Mardi Gras-like festivities, including spectacular parades of skeletons and ghouls. In one tradition, a mock funeral procession with a live person inside a coffin is paraded through the streets.


In the Celtic times and up till the medieval ages, fairies (a.k.a., faeries) were also thought to run free on the Eve of Samhain. Faeries weren't necessarily evil, but not particularly they weren't good. They were mischievous. They liked rewarding good deeds and did not like to be crossed. On Samhain, faeries were thought to disguise themselves as beggars and go door to door asking for handouts. Those who gave them food were rewarded. Those who did not were subjected to some unpleasantness.

In medieval times, one popular All Souls' Day practice was to make "soul cakes," simple bread desserts with a currant topping. In a custom called "souling," children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treaters. For every cake a child collected, he or she would have to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven. The children even sang a soul cake song along the lines of the modern "Trick-or-treat, trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat." Dressing up as ghouls and ghosts originated from the ancient Celtic tradition of townspeople disguising themselves as demons and spirits. The Celts believed that disguising themselves to look like the spirits who were wandering the earth that night might allow them to escape the notice of the real spirits wandering the streets. (ref)

As part of the Samhain celebration, Celts would bring home an ember from the communal bonfire at the end of the night. They carried these embers in hollowed-out turnips, creating a lantern resembling the modern day jack-o'-lantern. This carried on in Ireland and Scotland through the 18th century. A very popular character in Irish folk tales was Stingy Jack (ref), a famous cheapskate who, on several occasions, avoided losing his soul to the devil by tricking him (often on All Hallows' Eve). Much like the American stories of the devil and . In one story, he convinced Satan to climb up a tree for some apples, and then cut crosses all around the trunk so the devil couldn't climb down. The devil promised to leave Jack alone forever, if he would only let him out of the tree.

When Jack eventually died, he was turned away from Heaven, due to his life of sin. But, in keeping with their agreement, the Devil wouldn't take Jack, either. He was cursed to travel forever as a spirit in limbo. As Jack left the gates of Hell, the Devil threw him a hot ember to light the way in the dark. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip, and wandered off into the world. According to the Irish legend, you might see Jack's spirit on All Hallows' Eve, still carrying his turnip lantern through the darkness. Click here for a web page that has the complete Stingy Jack story!

Traditional jack-o'-lanterns, hollowed-out turnips with embers or candles inside, became a very popular Halloween decoration in Ireland and Scotland a few hundred years ago. Folk tradition held that they would ward off Stingy Jack and other spirits on Halloween, and they also served as representations of the souls of the dead. Irish families who emigrated to America brought the tradition with them, but they replaced the turnips with the more plentiful pumpkins. As it turns out, pumpkins were easier to carve than turnips. People began to cut frightening faces and other elaborate designs into their jack-o'-lanterns.

All of this brings us to PUMPKINS which become Jack O'Lanterns, which you want to go pick and carve. So let's look at why!


If you are not from the British Isles, you won't believe where your hollowed out pumpkin comes from! In Ireland and Scotland hollowed-out turnips with embers or candles inside, became a very popular Halloween decoration a few hundred years ago. Baldrick would have met his dream! (Fans of "Blackadder" will recognize this!) Tradition held that they would ward off Stingy Jack and other malevolent spirits on Halloween, and they also served as representations of the souls of the dead. Irish families who emigrated to America brought the tradition with them, but they replaced the turnips with pumpkins, which, native to the new world, were plentiful. It didn't hurt that they are a lot easier to carve than turnips. Have you ever tried to hollow out a turnip? People began to carve frightening faces and other designs into their jack-o'-lanterns.

Bringing it home to the United States

Meanwhile, back in the new world, the settlers were all Protestant and Halloween was technically a Catholic holiday. The original colonists in this country found ANY celebration immoral, especially a Catholic one. In fact, celebrating Christmas in the Massachusetts colony was once illegal, punishable by banishment or death.

After the American Revolution, Halloween still never really caught on in America. Most of the country was farmland, and the people too far spread out to share different celebrations from Europe. Any chance to get together was looked forward to - barn raisings, quilting bees, taffy pulls. Eventually, a fall holiday called the Autumn Play Party developed. People would gather and tell ghost stories, dance and sing and feast and light bonfires. The children would stage a school pageant where they paraded in costumes.

The Autumn Play Parties lasted until the Industrial revolution. After that, the majority of Americans lived in cities and had no need for such get togethers. By the end of the Civil War, only Episcopalians and Catholics celebrated All Saints' Day and Halloween, and the two religions combined made up less than 5% of the population. Concerned about letting a part of their heritage fade away, the the two religions began an aggressive campaign to put those two holidays on all public calendars. In the late 1800's there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborhood "get-togethers," than about the supernatural. .At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate. The first year All Saints' Day and Halloween showed up on the calendars, the newspapers and magazines made a big deal about it. Suddenly, everyone knew about Halloween and began celebrating it by lighting bonfires and having masquerade parties. The first official citywide Halloween celebration in the United States, occurred in Anoka, Minn., in 1921. In the 1920's and 30's Halloween became a secular but community centered holiday which was celebrated with parades and town wide parties. By the 1950's vandalism had to be brought under control and by this time Halloween was more of a child's celebration. Treats were handed out in order to prevent tricks like lawn rolling at each home. Those traditions have made Halloween the country's second largest commercial holiday to the tune of more than $2 billion spent on candy each year.

Today, Halloween is once again being celebrated as an adult holiday or masquerade, like Mardi Gras. Men and women in every disguise imaginable are now participating in parades. Many parents decorate their homes and yards, dress in costume, hand out candy at their door or go with their children as they collect candy.

And despite its origins, today it has nothing to do with evil, devil worship, satanic forces, etc. It's just good clean fun!

Sources and references

  1. Rogers, Nicholas (2002). "Samhain and the Celtic Origins of Halloween". Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, pp.11-21. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516896-8
  2. Roger, Nichola (2002). Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press. pp. 28-30. ISBN 0-19-514691-3.
  3. Arnold, Bettina (2001-10-31). "Bettina Arnold - Halloween Lecture: Halloween Customs in the Celtic World" . Halloween Inaugural Celebration. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: Center for Celtic Studies. . Retrieved 2007-10-16.
  4. Skal, David J. (2002). Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, p.34. New York: Bloomsbury. ISBN 1-58234-230-X.
  5. Pope John Paul, July 1994, conversation with the author in Rome, Italy
  6. Thompson, Sue Elled, ed. 2003. Holiday Symbols and Customs. 3rd Edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, Inc.
  7. Skal, David J. 2002. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
  8. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 1996)
  9. Steve Roud, Maresfield, East Sussex, England, and author of The English Year, and A Dictionary of English Folklore)

Comments, Feedback and Addenda:

  • A visitor writes on October 31, 2011: "I would like to point out that the only parts of Saturnalia that survived the Christians is the giving of gifts and the day/week off work (i.e. slaves having free day/week.) The tree and decorations(glass bulbs represent apples, the Christmas lights the candles) come from the Norse (Upper Europe) Yuletide, original celebrated on the 21/22 of December."
  • A visitor writes on October 24, 2010: "Just to clarify your history page, see this page; Despite concerns among some Catholics and other Christians in recent years about the "pagan origins" of Halloween, there really are none. The first attempts to show some connection between the vigil of All Saints and the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain came over a thousand years after All Saints Day became a universal feast, and there's no evidence whatsoever that Gregory III or Gregory IV was even aware of Samhain."

Other fun and useful Halloween information

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