The Origins of Halloween

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Each year on October 31, as the ghosts and goblins of Halloween parade the streets and doorsteps of our neighborhoods, we re-enact remnants of ancient folk customs that pay homage to departed ancestors as well as to the souls of our loved ones who have died.

These annual revivals of ancient rituals form the basis of our contemporary American festival.

Halloween has traditionally been associated in America with dressing up in costume and with consuming sweets; however, the roots of the holiday lie in late autumn harvest rituals that correspond to natural, seasonal changes and that are expressed in commemorations of the dying year. During this period of transition, cultures across the world remember those who have passed on by drawing an analogy between human death and the dark, cold winter months that loom ahead.

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While trick or treating in princess and hobo costumes, carving jack-o-lanterns and telling spooky ghost stories like Washington Irving’s tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are traditional hallmarks of the American holiday, other cultures experience their festivals of the dead in very different forms. This EDSITEment feature can be used with children and friends as a framework for discussing the origins and history of the Halloween festival and introducing them to the Mexican festival, the Day of the Dead (el Día de Muertos), recognizing the common elements shared these festivals of the dead as well as the acknowledging the differences between them.

The origin of our Western holiday known as Halloween is found in the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain (pronounced SOW-in). From present-day Ireland to the United Kingdom to Bretagne (Brittany), France, the ancient Celts marked this as one of their four most important festival quarter days of the year. Samhain commenced on the eve of October 31st, and ushered in the Celtic New Year on November 1st. The Celts experienced this as a liminal (threshold) period when the normally strict boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead became mutable. On the eve of Samhain, they believed the veil between the two realms was the most transparent, allowing the spirits of those who have died to return to visit earth.

The timing of this festival coincides with an important period in the natural calendar, one to which all cultures adhered until fairly recently. It is the time of the final harvests of the year, when animals stockpile stores of food for the winter months ahead, the sun sets earlier and rises later, and the trees shed their leaves. With the end of harvesting season, the entire natural world moves into its annual dormant state of hibernation, essentially “dying” until its annual rebirth the following spring.

After the Roman conquest of much of the Celts’ lands in France and England, Samhain was affected by the advent and subsequent spread of Christianity. The Church attempted to subsume the festival under the celebration of martyrs and saints, which was established on the ancient Celtic new year — November 1st — and recast it as All Saints Day (with the following day, November 2nd as All Soul’s Day). This festival was called All-Hallows, while the evening before was called All-hallows-eve — later becoming, by contraction, our present-day “Halloween.”

The many traditions associated with the contemporary American holiday, including dressing up in costume, holding parades, playing scary pranks and tricks on one another, bobbing for apples, and lighting bonfires are holdovers from the Celtic Samhain festival as outlined in The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows from the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. Our most popular custom of dressing up on Halloween emanates from the Celtic belief that the ghosts of the departed along with the fairy folk would be abroad roaming the fields and roads near their homes on this night. Fearful of encountering these otherworldly beings on their way to and from the celebrations, they began to wear masks and other ghostly gear in order to fool the spirits into believing they, too, were of the spirit world.

Take a historical look back at Halloween with the EDSITEment-reviewed website the American Memory Project, which has numerous original documents, including photographs of children and adults celebrating Halloween from the 1930s, to descriptions of Halloween festivities by Americans early in the 20th century, to late 19th-century magazine articles about the holiday.

Ancient Celts in Europe and contemporary Americans are by no means the only people with long histories of acknowledging the close of the harvest season by honoring ancestors, hanging ghostly décor, and donning ghoulish apparel. Students will find commonalities within the seasonal festivals of the dead from cultures celebrating Halloween Around the World and explore the origins of our practices in the History of Halloween. The tradition of leaving food on doorsteps on All-hallows-eve in many parts of Europe in the hopes that it might prevent wandering spirits and fairies from entering the house and placate them evolved into the practice of trick or treating.

Prepared by the NEH.