The Spooky History of Halloween

Like Christmas and many other holidays, Halloween has become commercialized—it’s all about costumes, parties and candy, whereas it was once a day of fear, communicating with spirits and decoding your future.  Though our motives for celebrating Halloween might have changed over the years, our customs barely have.


The tradition of Halloween, though it was not called Halloween back then, began with the Celts long ago in the British Isles.  Their ancient festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-win) was celebrated on November 1st.  It represented the end of the summer as well as the end of the year, and this is when they cultivated the last of their harvest and moved their cattle to their winter shelters.  It was believed that on the night of Samhain, October 31st, the barrier between our world and the spirit world was the weakest, allowing ghosts and other spirits to wander freely. The Celts believed this made it easier for the Druids to prophesize the future.  To celebrate the return of the dead to earth, the Druids would build bonfires and burn crops and animals all as sacrifice to their Gods.  During the celebration, they would adorn themselves in costumes made of animal heads and skins.

By 43 A.D., the Romans conquered many Celtic lands and ruled them for over 400 years, keeping their traditions of Samhain and adding their own traditions to it. Feralia was a day where the Romans celebrated the passing of the dead, and Pomona was a day to honour the Goddess of Fruit and Trees.  Pomona’s symbol is the apple, and its integration in Samhain tradition would explain our custom of bobbing for apples that is still done today.  It wasn’t until May 13th, 609 A.D., did the Pope Boniface IV establish All Martyrs Day in the Western church.  Later, Pope Gregory III, expanded the festival to include both saints and martyrs, and moved the tradition to November 1st, later to be called All Saints’ Day, and instilling All Souls Day on November 2nd, giving the Celts a church-sanctioned day to honour the dead.  It was still a popular belief that it was high carnival season for witches, fairies and spirits to roam freely as well as the peak night of the year for clear divination and supernatural influence, and All Souls’ Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain with bonfires, costumes and parades.  The term Halloween itself comes from the Middle English name of All Hallowmas, which meant All Saints’ Day, turning the previous night into All Hallows Eve and later, Halloween.


The celebration of Halloween was limited in New England because of the strict religious beliefs that came with the Puritans and Protestants and was celebrated with plays about the harvest, sharing stories about the dead, telling each other’s fortunes and singing and dancing.  Autumn festivities were popular, but Halloween itself was not celebrated everywhere until the arrival of a large number of Irish immigrants during the Potato Famine in the mid-1800’s.  It was with the help of these newcomers that popularized old Halloween customs of dressing up and going door-to-door asking for food and money, and divining the name or appearance of ones future partner in North America. Finally, in the late 1800’s, Halloween become a community and neighbourly-oriented holiday, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Halloween had lost the majority of its superstitious and religious meanings.  In the 1920’s and 30’s, Halloween had become a secular holiday celebrated with parades and large parties that eventually caused vandalism throughout the city.  However, by the 1950’s, they had reduced parties to classrooms and the homes of the people, and trick-or-treating was revived as way to bribe the younger generation out of vandalizing property.

Over the years, Halloween has lost its touch of focusing on the past and remembering our passed loved ones for a glance into the future, and now revolves around wild parties, sexy costumes and candy.  Perhaps this Halloween you should try a traditional Halloween, or Samhain, custom.


­Halloween Customs

There are many ancient Halloween customs that are still alive and well in the modern world, though they might not be quite the same as they once were.  Many of our own Halloween customs are based on or influenced by old-timey Halloween fun.

  • The Jack-o-Lantern was a tradition originally from Europe.  Since pumpkins are native to North America, European children carved large turnips and put candles inside to create Jack-o-Lanterns, which would scare ghosts away with their creepy designs.
  • As mentioned earlier, the ancient Celts used scary costumes made of animal hide to ward off evil spirits.  Later, the Irish and Scottish dressed up as vampires, ghosts, witches and even as the Devil to trick evil spirits into thinking they were one of them.  These costumes are still popular today.
  • Trick or Treating has been around for many years.  The ancient Celts would put out bowls of food to subdue the ghosts and keep them from wreaking havoc on the people. In the 1800’s, children in Ireland would dress up and receive fruits and nuts, but in Scotland, they would trade songs, poems, tricks, jokes and dances for nuts, apples, dried fruit, and pocket change.  In England, it was adults who went door to door asking for food and money.
  • Halloween is also known to be one of the best nights for fortune telling and finding out who you might marry, amongst other things.  One of the most popular methods of determining your future partner is to fill three bowls with water.  One clean, one dirty and one empty.  You lead a blindfolded person to the bowls letting them choose one by dipping their fingers into the bowl three times, switching around the bowls in between takes.  A bowl of clean water meant a wealthy and good looking partner, dirty water signified a partner who has been married before and the empty bowl meant living a life of celibacy