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Water Cooler: An overview of Halloween history

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 13, 2020

A home is decorated for Halloween in 2017 in Webster Groves, Mo.  (Associated Press)
A home is decorated for Halloween in 2017 in Webster Groves, Mo. (Associated Press)

Halloween has a long history and is celebrated in many parts of the world. Its eerie nature and relationship to the end of the fall harvest makes it seem like a celebration as old as time, but where does it really come from?

Halloween is also known by other names like All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Eve and Allhalloween. It also has the alternative spelling Hallowe’en which is a contraction of Hallow’s Evening.

These names come from Halloween as a celebration of the eve of the feast of All Saints’ Day, also called All Hallows’ Day. This is a holiday in the Western Christian tradition that honors all the saints. It seems surprising that a holiday popularly associated with evil spirits, witches, monsters and the like would have Christian roots, but knowing the history behind it will help explain how Halloween has evolved over time.

What most Americans know today as Halloween is a much more commercialized and secular celebration than what it started out as. Although the celebration is related to All Saint’s Day, many of the Halloween traditions are believed to have roots in the Gaelic festival Samhain.

Samhain was a festival celebrated by the Gaels that marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The Gaels are a people native to Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man associated with the Gaelic languages, which is one branch of the Celtic languages. This language is still spoken by thousands of people, although the number of speakers are in decline.

The Samhain festival is similar to other harvest celebrations within Celtic paganism, which was a religion practiced by the Celts across Western Europe. It is hard to define exactly what paganism means, but in general it implies the Western European religious practice of polytheism, or belief in multiple deities and gods. This is in contrast to Christianity which is a monotheistic religion, meaning that it believes in only one deity or god.

Most historians believe that Samhain became Christianized by the early Church and then became associated with the Christian holiday of All Hallows’ Eve, although there are historians who disagree with this and think Halloween began as a Christian holiday separate from pagan harvest festivals.

Regardless of its true origin, it is remarkable how many classic Halloween images and activities today are similar to the traditions of early Gaelic and Christian celebrations. The traditions from both religions especially began to overlap after Pope Gregory IV officially changed All Hallows’ Day to Nov. 1 in 835.

For instance, Halloween’s association with ghosts, spirits, vampires, zombies and the “undead” in general is very similar to how Samhain and All Hallows’ Eve both involved beliefs that a spirit world of some sort was more accessible to the world of the living during this time of the year.

Samhain traditions speculated that the boundary between the world of the living and the “Otherworld” (the realm of deities and sometimes the dead in Celtic mythology) was thinner during this time, allowing spirits and fairies to more easily enter the normal world.

Many Christians, especially those in France, believed that Halloween was the day that the dead rose for a celebration called “danse macabre.” This danse macabre would be acted out at village pageants and people would dress up as corpses for the celebration. Sounds similar to a typical Halloween costume party, doesn’t it?

Other festivities celebrated during the end of harvest time in Ireland and Britain among pagans where games and rituals to tell the future, including dream interpretation, apple bobbing, nut roasting and scrying, which was a tradition of looking into a medium like a crystal ball or mirror in order to see visions and messages.

By the end of the 12th century, All Hallows’ Eve had become a holy day celebrated across Europe. These celebrations often included the ringing of bells for souls in purgatory by churches and criers dressed in black parading through town. Christians would also go “souling.” People would bake soul cakes, which were small round cakes filled with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, allspice and other spices and marked with a cross.

Children would go door to door collecting soul cakes and offering prayers in return. Today’s Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating is very similar in practice, although it has much less to do with offering prayers and much more to do with accumulating as much candy as possible. While souling, Christians would carry lanterns made from carved and hollowed-out turnips, which may have been the origin of today’s jack-o’-lantern.

Beginning as early as the 16th century, Celtic festivals included “guising” or dressing up in disguise and going door to door in disguise to receive gifts of food, treats and coins. This also mostly applied to children. Those celebrating this holiday in the Middle Ages and later thought that dressing up as the souls of the dead allowed them to receive offerings on the souls’ behalf and to be protected from the souls that were out that night to seek vengeance on the living.

Some historians claim that Christian churches in the Middle Ages were too poor to display relics of saints so Christians would dress up as the saints instead, which may be another reason costumes are a part of Halloween celebrations.

By the time European colonists came to North America, the celebration of All Hallow’s Eve was well established in Anglican and Catholic communities. However, it was not until mass immigration of Irish and Scottish people to North America that Halloween became widely celebrated. By the 20th century Halloween was celebrated coast to coast in the United States. Trick-or-treating as we know it became widely popular in the United States in the 1930s.

Halloween has changed a lot even within the last 100 years, but it is amazing to see how many of the Halloween traditions we take for granted today are actually tied to celebrations more than a thousand years old.

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