For many people, Halloween means dressing up in costumes, going trick-or-treating, eating candy, and visiting haunted houses. It’s been something most Americans celebrate every year since they were children. But what significance does Halloween have in our culture?
The origins of Halloween date back to the Celts in the Iron Age, circa 800-600 BC. The Celts celebrated Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season. On this day, the Celts believed that the spirits of the dead returned to earth. People lit bonfires, made sacrifices to the gods, and wore costumes to keep away bad luck.
When the Roman influence reached the Celtic lands in the 9th century, the festival traditions of Samhain blended with the traditions of the Roman festivals Pomona, which celebrated the apple harvest, Parentalia and Feralia, festivals of the dead. One of the major influences on Samhain was All Saints’ Day, a holiday celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church on November 1st, honoring saints and the recently departed.
Though Halloween was celebrated in colonial New England, it wasn’t very big until the mid-19th century, when the Irish immigrants came, because the Protestant presence in colonial America had strict religious beliefs. They brought a blend of Samhain, Pomona, and pagan traditions to the Halloween culture. Before the Irish came, Halloween was already developing its own distinct roots as an American holiday through the blending with Native American harvest celebrations. After the influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine in Ireland, Halloween began to shift from a superstitious holiday to a festive, more light-hearted celebration.