Angels and demons cavort with witches and zombies, and run hand in hand along streets lined with houses glowing from the light of candles inside hallowed out pumpkins carved with faces. Superheroes, supervillains, and every imaginable spooky character knock on doors and are handed heaps of candies and other treats by smiling adults.
It happens only once a year on the last day of October. Halloween has become one of the biggest and most commercialized annual festivals. It’s synonymous with fun — especially scary fun.
Where did Halloween originate?
The origin of the term Halloween and the origin of practices associated with it are two different tales.
Over 2,000 years ago (some say as early as 3,500 years ago) lived the Celts, a collection of tribes in Central Europe, that shared similar language, religious beliefs and traditions.
Among these traditions was the celebration of the new year on from October 31 to November 1 which marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter with its short days and long nights. During this period, the Celts believed that the line between the human world and spiritual world was blurred, and the living and dead could reach out and connect with one another.
The festival was called Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”). Celtic priests called Druids made prophecies amid ritual bonfires where the Celts, often wearing “costumes” of animal heads and skins, burned crops and cattle as offering to prevent spirits from harming the living.
After Christianity spread to northern Europe, attempts to integrate pagan customs into Christian traditions began. Initial attempts failed but, in the 9th Century, at the behest of Pope Gregory IV, November 1 was declared All Hallows’ Day in honor of all saints. In the 11th century, the celebration of All Souls’ Day on November 2 was popularized. October 31, the eve of the two holidays became Halloween (a contraction of Hallows’ Even or Hallows’ Evening) and, together, all three became Allhallowtide.
Where did modern Halloween practices come from?
In countries with strong Catholic traditions, observance of Allhallowtide is still very much about remembering the departed.
In Mexico, the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), originally a summer celebration for thousands of years, became associated with Allhallowtide as a result of Spanish colonization.
In the Philippines, also a former Spanish colony, people commemorate Allhallowtide by visiting the graves of loved ones, lighting candles and offering flowers.
In many countries, especially the United States, Halloween is a festival marked by candies, jack-o’-lanterns, costumes and scary fun.
The jack-o’-lantern is believed to have originated in Ireland. An Irish folk tale tells of how Stingy Jack tricked the devil into paying for his drinks at a tavern. When Jack died, he was denied entrance to heaven. And because he pissed off the devil, he couldn’t get into hell either. The devil threw him a burning ember which he kept in a hollowed out turnip as his soul wandered the earth.
Wearing costumes can be traced back to Celtic practices. But trick-or-treating in costumes, originally known as guising, came later in medieval Europe, particularly in Scotland, Britain and Ireland, where people wearing costumes went from house to house reciting verses in exchange for food.
When over half a million Irish migrated to America in the aftermath of the 1845 Potato Blight, they brought Halloween traditions, including guising and the jack-o’-lantern, with them. But turnips were unavailable so they started carving out pumpkins instead.
Halloween traditions brought over by the Irish used to be a feature only in immigrant communities. But by the 1920s, they had entered mainstream American culture. Trick-or-treating followed a decade later although children declaring “trick or treat” at the doorstep of American homes was not all that common until the 1980s.