Halloween History

On a day of ghouls and goblins, it’s easy to see why Halloween’s history is steeped in superstitious traditions.Halloween’s origins date to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).

The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on Nov. 1. The day signified the end of summer and the harvest, and the beginning of the dark and cold winter, which to them was often associated with death.

They believed that on this night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.

To commemorate the event, the Celts dressed up in costumes, typically of animal heads and skins, and built large bonfires, where they gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods.

As winter was such an uncertain time, the shortest days of winter were full of constant worry for the Celts. On Samhain, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the human world, people were afraid they would encounter a ghost if they left their homes after dark. To avoid being recognized by one of the haunting spirits, they would wear masks that disguised them as one of the ghosts’ fellow spirits. They would also place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts in the hopes that the spirits would not enter.

By the 800’s, Christianity had spread into the Celtic lands. Pope Boniface IV designated Nov. 1 as “All Saint’s Day,” or “All Hallows,” a time to honor saints and martyrs. Thus, the night before it, the Celt’s Samhain, was renamed “All Hallows Eve” or “Halloween.”

The tradition was brought to America by the Irish and European immigrants around the turn of the century.