History of Halloween


Margaret Wood, Journalist

Halloween. The story starts about 2,000 years ago with the ancient Celts. The Celts would celebrate a holiday called Samahin, celebrated from October 31st to November 1st. It was tradition to light large bonfires and dress up in animal skin costumes. People would take some of the communal fire back to their own home to protect it after the celebrations. To celebrate the dead and please their gods, the Celts would dance and sing. It was believed that the veil between the spiritual and physical world would break down during these celebrations to more easily communicate. Samhain was also a time where Druids (celtic priests) would predict the future, which would comfort the Celts through the harsher cold months of the year. This age-old holiday is still celebrated today among some Neo-Pagans and Wiccans. 

The story continues with the Romans, who by 43 A.D. had taken over Celtic land. They tried to combine Roman holidays like Feralia, which was to celebrate the passing of the dead, and Celtic holidays. Along with some Christian influence, All Saint’s Day came to be. Created in 1000 A.D, it is celebrated on November 1st and is similar to Samhain. The night before was called All-Hallows Eve, but eventually evolved into the name we all know… Halloween! 

Halloween in America was a slow progression. In the early Colonial times, Halloween was only celebrated in Maryland and southern colonies. The New England Colonies were very religious. Blue laws (laws that outlawed things like games, stage plays, etc) made it hard for people to celebrate. Halloween started to pick up in the late 19th century as Irish Immigrants came to America. With them, they brought superstitions and customs. But as the years went on, Halloween changed, and it began to involve more secular traditions, which you can read about below. 

How Classic Halloween Traditions Came to be:

Trick-or-treating– Every kid anticipates that one night every year when you can go against their parents’ rules and take candy from strangers. This tradition arose from the Samahin holiday. Poor children would go to people’s houses for money and in exchange, they would pray for the person’s dead relatives. In addition to their prayers, people would also sing, dance, and tell jokes. This was the ‘treat’ part of trick-or treat. The ‘trick’ part was more cruel. Putting hot cabbage in their neighbor’s keyhole to stink up the house, dressing up to scare people, and trampling people’s gardens are a few “tricks” to be named. These traditions started in Europe and traveled to the US in the early 1900s when benign tricks evolved into breaking and entering. In exchange for good behavior, people would give children candy. Today, trick-or-treating is still a common halloween celebration.   

Pumpkin Carving- Originating from Samahin, the Irish started this tradition based on a Myth called “Stingy Jack.” Jack tricked the devil for his own gain, so when he died, God wouldn’t let him in heaven. The devil certainly didn’t let him in hell! While Jack was forced to roam around Earth, the Irish carved scary faces in turnips to try and scare him away. It was only when Irish immigrants carried over their customs to the US did they begin to carve faces in pumpkins, since pumpkins were native to America. 

Wearing Costumes- As many other traditions, costume wearing began during Samhain. The Irish would dress up, attempting to trick spirits into mistaking them for other spirits. When Halloween came to America, people wore scary costumes made from masks, sheets, and makeup. At first. Halloween was more about death and horror. As crime increased on Halloween, communities reformed its meaning and kids began to dress up as less scary characters around the 1960s.