Origins of Halloween
by John Retzer
Halloween has become one of America's
favorite holidays. Last year Americans spent more than $3 billion last year on
Halloween candy, costumes, pumpkins and decorations. Millions of children (and
adults!) look forward to this happy event.
But it hasn't always been
so. Once upon a time, Halloween was a night to be feared, when the dead walked
The history of our modern Halloween begins with an ancient
Celtic holiday called Samhain (pronounced sow-en). The Celts lived in present
day Ireland and England dating to about the 5th Century BC.
Celts, Samhain marked the end of summer. The date is generally given as October
31, but it is unlikely that is the exact date.
For the Celts, as for
many ancient peoples, the end of summer was an event viewed with dread. Summer
represented a time of warmth and plentiful food; with winter the nights became
longer, and food was scarce. And for the superstitious mind, long nights were
accompanied by unwelcome spirits.
Much of what has been written about
Celtic religion about Celtic religion is the product of the writers' vivid
imagination. Despite the legends, it's highly unlikely that the Celts
sacrificed virgins in burning wicker cages, and they probably didn't dance
naked around Stonehenge.
Most reputable historians agree on one of two
According to one, the Celts believed that Samhain was the
night on which the spirits of the dead were permitted to return to Earth to
find a body to posess. To avoid this unpleasant fate, the superstitious Celts
tried two tricks: First, they would douse all of the hearth fires in their
village, to trick the spirits into thinking that no one was home. Then, they
would don costumes to fool the spirits and wander about in the dark. The real
spirits, thinking that the village already was haunted, would then contine on
Three of the modern Halloween fixtures are said to come
from this legend: Ghosts (spirits of the dead) costumes and dark, empty
To mark the end of the night, the villagers then would relight
all of their hearth fires from a sacred bonfire built by their priests, the
A more gruesome version says that part of the bonfire ceremony
involved the ignition of a young, innocent village girl. This, however, is more
likely Hollywood than history.
The second version of the Celtic holiday
says that they celebrated the end of summer with a huge bonfire. Animals and
crops would be burned in the fire to give thanks for the summer, and to ensure
their return the next year. Costumes of animals were worn to represent the
creatures of the forest that had blessed them that year. At the end of the
ceremony, each family would take home an ember to light their own winter hearth
Christianity came to the British Isles somewhere around the
second century AD. One of the tactics of early missionaries was to make
Christianity more palatable by incorporating local customs into Christian
practice. For example, early missionaries were willing to abandon the stricture
that converts first become Jews when they ran across cultural barriers, and it
is thought that the date of Christmas was selected to coincide with a Germanic
As the story goes, the Celts were unwilling to give up
their summer festival, so the missionaries simply incorporated it.
the 700s, Pope Boniface IV set November 1 as All Hallows -- or All Saints --
Day. The previous night was thus known as All Hallows Eve. November 2 became
All Souls Day, to honor the souls of the dead. The three days together were
called Hallow Mass.
And All Hallows Eve became Halloween.
widely believed that Boniface IV did this to co-opt the pagan Celtic holdouts
Halloween arrived in North America with the early
colonists. However, because of the Puritan influence in New England, it was
mostly confined to the Scots-Irish of the Southern Colonies.
Halloweens were celebrated as Harvest Festivals, with lots of eating and
drinking, music, dancing, ghost stories and fortune telling. (All of these were
things that were disapproved of in Puritan New England. Some more of our modern
Halloween symbols were introduced at this time, as traditions were blended with
Native American harvest festivals. Corn stalks and pumpkins - unknown in Europe
before the discovery of North America - became part of Halloween
But Halloween really arrived in America with the massive Irish
immigration of the 1840s. The Irish brought their Celtic Halloween traditions
with them and wove them into the fabric of American society.
Retzer has worked as a professional journalist, photographer, editor, public
relations professional and golf coach. He currently teaches economics,
political science and history. In his "spare time" he runs several websites and
blogs, including Top Halloween Links at
www.thingsinthebasement.com and Golf Blogger at
This article is derived
from his lectures on the History of Halloween.