The Origins of Halloween

Interesting facts about the history behind Halloween

At some point while squeezing into a silly costume or screaming your way out of a haunted house, you may have wondered “just where did Halloween come from anyways?” At what point did putting on a mask and costume become the exchange rate for candy? You might come across a few different theories and superstitions about the origin of Halloween, but historians have been able to trace the holiday back to a number of different European traditions. Rather than having one origin, it is speculated that this globally celebrated holiday is the culmination of many different traditions and influences coming together over time.

Long before the word Halloween was dreamt up, there existed several rituals and holidays that somewhat resemble, and may have evolved into, the Halloween we know today. The history and customs of Halloween may have originated as far back as ancient Rome, in a festival called “Parentalia.” Also known as the ‘festival of the dead’, this holiday was created to honour the spirits of deceased ancestors. It is thought that this ancient tradition may have had some influence on Halloween, as it shares a similar fixation on spirits and the deceased.

A much closer ancestor to Halloween would be the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which was held in celebration of summer’s end. It is said that during this festival, the Gael’s would light great bonfires to ward off spirits and magic, sometimes even sacrificing their livestock to the flames. Samhain’s date and connections to the supernatural make it the most likely inspiration for the holiday we now know as Halloween, but it was still a long time before it evolved into the festival we celebrate today.

The word Halloween was first derived from the Christian celebration of “All Hallows’ Day,” held on the first of November. The tradition was conceived to honour and commemorate all the saints of the past and present. For ages it was also believed that spirits of the deceased would wander the earth until that day, when they would pass on to the next life. Because of this passing, it meant that the night before All Hallows’ Day, the 31st of October, was the last night for these ghosts to take revenge on the living for past misfortunes. This is why many Christians started wearing masks on the evening before All Hallows’ Day, then known as All Hallows’ Eve, to protect their identities from angry spirits seeking vengeance.

It is also from All Hallows’ Eve that the tradition of pumpkin carving originated. Traditionally people used turnips, which they carved into lanterns to remember the souls of those trapped in purgatory. When Europeans began colonizing North America, they started using pumpkins instead for their size and texture.

Perhaps its proximity and similarity to the Celtic tradition of Samhain is the reason Halloween survived in Scottish and Irish culture, where the tradition was kept alive. In the 16th century, much of Western Europe began to undergo what was known as “The Protestant Reformation,” in which many of the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church were challenged. This resulted in many Christians denouncing the celebration as heresy, incompatible with their beliefs. Even the Europeans who colonized North America lived in strong opposition to the holiday. It was not until Scottish and Irish immigrants began to grow in numbers that Halloween started receiving more mainstream acknowledgement in North American colonies, until it eventually grew into the widespread holiday it is today.

There are many different stories and superstitions regarding the origin of Halloween, some even claiming it celebrates the birth of the devil. On a day that celebrates mystery and deception, there are bound to be a number of misconceptions, but regardless it has become a treasured part of our history. Today, it is celebrated worldwide by people of many different cultures, races, and backgrounds, each bringing their own contributions to this age old custom.

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