The History of Halloween

The History of Halloween

For some, Halloween is shrouded in mystery and marks the day when the veil between the physical world and the spirit world is the thinnest. Others simply see it as a day of fun that culminates in donning a cool or scary costume and collecting bagfuls of candy while trick-or-treating. But whatever one's reason for enjoying Halloween, no one can deny its popularity – it is considered the second-largest commercial holiday in the U.S., with nearly $7 billion in annual sales, reports the National Retail Federation, behind only Christmas.

Unlike Christmas, however, which is a clear-cut religious holiday commemorating a particular event of historical significance, Halloween's roots are a bit more unclear. So why is there Halloween? Celebrated annually on October 31, the history of Halloween is as rich and interesting as the holiday itself.

Halloween's Ancient Origins

Halloween Bonfire, History of Halloween

While accounts vary, most people believe that the roots of Halloween date back to more than 2,000 years ago. The Celtic people, who lived in what is now Great Britain and sections of northern France, celebrated holidays based on the seasons. According to, November 1 marked the start of both the winter season and the Celtic new year, and the night before, the Celts celebrated the end of the year with the festival of Samhain, pronounced either “sow-in” or “saw-ain,” depending on the region.

During ancient Samhain rituals, Celtic priests, also known as Druids, lit bonfires. Celtic people burned animals and crops in these sacred fires as a celebration of a bountiful harvest, and they dressed up in costumes and masks . It is believed that Samhain costumes, typically made of animal skin and feathers, were originally a way of “hiding” from the spirits that wandered the earth on the last day of the year. Apples were a big part of Samhain festivities and were used as divination tools. This tradition is the root of the popular Halloween game of “bobbing for apples.”

Why is There All Hallow's Eve?

Within the Catholic Church lies another story of Halloween's origins. Halloween is also called “All Hallow's Eve,” and in the Catholic faith, November 1 is All Saints' Day, also known as All Hallow's Day. The root of the celebration is similar to that of Samhain. It is a day of remembrance of the dead, especially those who have not descended to heaven. Some scholars believe that the November date was chosen to lessen the importance of the pagan holiday of Samhain, as it was considered evil to some people.

Whether or not the historical importance of All Saints' Day celebrations answer the question of "why is there All Hallow's Eve," it is clear that many other cultures honor the dead at about the same time of year. Both All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead, a famous Latin American holiday when families honor their deceased ancestors, are celebrated on November 2.

Modern Halloween Traditions

Vintage Halloween

Nearly 2,000 years later, the history of Halloween grew fascinating and complex as the descendants of the Celts immigrated to America in large numbers. These English and Irish families brought along the traditions of their homeland as early as the 1840s, and modern Halloween traditions began to take root.

Costumed celebrants would go door to door begging for money or food, a tradition that may have originated during All Souls' Day parades, Wikipedia claims while attempting to answer the question of why is there All Hallow's Eve. Those begging were often given pastries called “soul cakes” along with promises of prayer, and many believe that trick-or-treating is the modern incarnation of begging for soul cakes and alms.

By the mid-1900s, trick-or-treating had become commonplace in the United States. In 2016, it is estimated that more than 65 million Americans , including children, will dress up as princesses, ghosts, vampires or their favorite superheroes, and the majority will ring doorbells and beg for treats on All Hallow's Eve. Although those who celebrate on October 31 are continuing a tradition dating back to ancient times, few of them will consider the big question: Why is there Halloween?


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