The specific origins of Halloween are often debated. Like many historical events created in ancient times, much of how we celebrate Halloween today is a compilation of hundreds of years including the input of many different people. The most agreed upon version is that it began as a festival for witches, goblins and ghosts.
Ancient Celtic Origins
Originating with ancient Celts in the 5th century B.C. who were among the firsts to celebrate October 31st. They called it “All Hallows Eve.” The day itself had two meanings. First, it marked the official end of summer and the Celts were honor the sun god for the summer’s harvest. Secondly, the last day of October was believed to also be a day of supernatural forces. It was a day that the spirits of those who died the previous year could transfer into a living person or animal. By transferring into a body for the next year, it was believed that the spirit would then be able to move into the afterlife peacefully.
On “All Hallows Eve,” Celtic houses would be deliberately made cold in order ward off undesired spirits. Additionally to help deter and scare unwanted ghouls, family members dressed as witches, hobgoblins and demons. They would parade inside the home before moving outside. During their parading, it was important to be as noisy as possible and to partake in pranks and trickery. The parade continued through the village until they arrived at a large bonfire created by a Druid priest outside the village. The bonfire honored the sun god for the summer harvest but it was also a means to ward off furtive spirits. If a person was already believed to be possessed, they could be sacrificed as an example to the spirits thinking of possessing human body.
Roman and the Christianity Adaption
As the Roman Empire began to conquer Celtic territory around 43 A.D., they also adopted Celtic Halloween practices. However, they quickly outlawed human sacrificing around 61 A.D. The Romans added two major items to the Halloween celebrations, the first being to honor the passing of the dead. Secondly, they honored Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees, by incorporating apples as a symbol of the goddess. They would use apples in various forms during their celebration. One activity still practiced today would be the tradition of “bobbing” for apples. Additionally, as time passed the belief in spiritual possession waned. Instead, celebrations still included the parading, costuming and trickery but it was more for amusement than as a method to deter unwanted spirits.
November 1st was eventually assigned as “All Saints Day.” Allegedly, this Christian feast was created to deter people from practicing the pagan traditions of Halloween. Instead the first of November honored every Christian saint, particularly those that do not have their own devoted day. The idea did not fully happen, however over time, many of the traditional deity worship done in the ancient “All Hollows Eve” rituals diminished. In the 9th century, the church tried again to weaken Halloween by establishing “All Souls Day” on November 2nd. “All Souls Day” was a day in which the living would pray for the souls of the dead. Again, the church was powerless in its attempt to create a secular church holiday that would overshadow Halloween.
Halloween comes to America
Halloween was not a popular holiday observed by the early settlers in the United States. The Protestants in the New England area were against it because it was considered a Pagan, Catholic or Episcopalian holiday and not acceptable. It was not until around the 1840s when Irish immigration greatly increased due to those fleeing the Great Famine (potato famine) that Halloween started to spread. Irish immigrants brought with them the Halloween customs of costume and mischief on a larger scale than was previous seen.
At the turn of the century, both children and adults celebrated with Halloween parties focused on games, food and costumes. In the 1920s and 1930s, the holiday became community-centered with parades and large parties. The town of Anoka, Minnesota is believed to be the first town in the country to host a Halloween parade in 1920. In an effort to deter the mischief of the town’s youth, who were known to let the cattle loose and turn over outhouses on Halloween, started this annual tradition. By the 1930s, it was estimated around 20,000 people attended the parades.
As the years passed, Halloween has become increasingly more popular. In the United States, Halloween has moved past its origins as a pagan spiritual festival and into a secular celebration. Commercialization has emphasized costumes, trick-or-treat and food as well as turning it into a holiday children and adults alike.
Charles Panati, Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, New York: Harper, 1989, 62-63.
Anoka, MN website
Photos: 2nd, 3rd, 4th