All Hallows’ Eve: The Origin of Halloween

Photo and body paint by Sarah Page

Modern-day Halloween has become a highly-celebrated—and commercialized—holiday in the US. Homes are heavily decorated, children trick-o-treat in fantastic costumes meant to frighten adults into handing over piles of candy (although mostly we just think each 4-foot Frankenstein is adorable). But where did this now-secular tradition come from? Why do we dress like pirates and ballerinas and stomp around the neighborhood begging for candy once a year?

The origins of the traditional Halloween celebration date back to the time of the Celts—about 2,000 years ago—and Samhain, pronounced Sawin or Sowin. The Celts, a fascinatingly superstitious people, lived mainly in what we now know as Ireland, Britain, and Northern France. October 31st represented the end of the harvest season, and the beginning of the long, dark winter. For one night each year, on Samhain, the lines between the worlds of the living and the dead, light and dark, blurred. A massive bonfire roared to honor the Pagan Gods and the ancestors. Home fires were extinguished for the night, and were re-lit from the central bonfire only after the night’s celebrations.

Many Celts placed food and drink outside their homes on Samhain to aid or ward off the spirits of those who had died during the previous year. Both good and bad spirits roamed the land on this night, and could possess living people, ruin crops, and generally cause trouble, but could just as easily bestow blessings. Fortunes were divined—many believed that Druids, Celtic priests, could predict the future better during Samhain—and sacrifices were made. Weaker livestock animals were often killed during this time, as it was unlikely that they would survive the coming winter.

Some Celts wore costumes of animal skins and skulls, making loud noises in villages to scare off evil spirits. The sídhe, mounds or portals to the faerie world, were opened during Samhain, and faeries were thought to roam the land dressed as beggars. Celts who gave food to faeries were richly rewarded, while those who didn’t were punished—this may be the origin of “trick or treating” as we now know it.

By the First Century AD, the Roman Empire had conquered most of the Celtic lands, and Roman and Pagan traditions became intertwined. Feralia, the Roman holiday to honor the dead, and Pomona, a celebration of the goddess of fruits and trees (Pomona’s symbol was the apple), combined easily with the Pagan holiday Samhain.

Over the next several hundred years, Christianity spread throughout most of the Celt and Roman-occupied lands, although Samhain still remained an important annual holiday. But as you can imagine, the church did not favor Samhain—to deal with the issue, toward the end of the first millennia AD, Pope Gregory IV moved the Christian holiday of All Saints Day, or All Hallowmas, a day honoring dead Christian saints and martyrs, from May 1st to November 1st. Later, November 2nd was designated All Souls Day to celebrate the dead who were not saints or martyrs. This may have been an attempt to control Pagan Samhain celebrations by replacing the holiday directly, or at least drawing away much of the attention—but Samhain continued to remain a highly popular tradition. Since it was held the night before All Saints Day, Samhain became known as All Hallows Eve, and later Hallowe’en.

Halloween in the US

Most early American settlers were Protestant, and, given the lack of Saints in the Protestant Church, Halloween and All Saints Day—considered Catholic, Pagan, and Episcopalian holidays—were not largely celebrated. But as immigration increased, traditional Halloween practices found new life in the New World, mostly from Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine. Now, the American Halloween is secular, and is celebrated predominantly by young children—but also by all those who love spooky ghost stories, Tales from the Crypt, and, frankly, candy. For better or for worse, Halloween has grown into America’s second largest commercial holiday.

“Day of the Dead”

The peoples of Mexico, Spain, and Latin America celebrate Día de los Muertos, or the “Day of the Dead,” during which time—mainly celebrated on November 2nd, following Día de los Inocentes, or “Day of the Innocents,” honoring those who died as children—the spirits of the dead are said to visit their living relatives. The graves of the deceased are cleaned and decorated. Burning incense is lit to help the spirits find their way home, where an altar covered with flowers, candles, sugar skulls, photographs, and many of their favorite foods is waiting. The Day of the Dead may stem both from Pagan traditions and from Aztec traditions revolving around Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of Mictlan, the underworld, and “Lady of the Dead.” Mictecacihuatl is said to preside over the modern Day of the Dead.

“Jack of the Lantern”

There are a host of possibilities as to the origin of the Jack o’ Lantern as it’s associated with modern Halloween—but it’s definitely one of my favorite aspects of the holiday (when else do you get to light squash on fire?). My favorite Jack o’ Lantern origination tale comes from Stingy Jack, whose story is told in different forms across Britain, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Jack tricked the Devil not once, but twice—first after convincing him to change into a coin to pay for their drinks (Jack was stingy, remember), which Jack actually kept in his pocket next to a silver cross, preventing the Devil from changing back. Jack released the Devil only after the demon agreed to leave him alone for a year. After tricking the Devil a second time—this time Jack trapped the Devil in a tree on which he carved a symbol of the cross—Jack made the Devil agree to spare his soul when he died. But upon Jack’s death, God did not welcome the unsavory man into Heaven. Being denied both Heaven and Hell, the Devil mockingly sent Jack into the dark night with only a coal to light the way, which he carried in a hollowed-out turnip—and Jack and his lantern roam the Earth to this day, searching for a resting place. Originally made using beets, potatoes, or similar root veggies, American immigrants found pumpkins to be the ideal Jack of the Lantern, or Jack o’ Lantern.

By Genevieve Weber