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Halloween: A History

Lauren Baker

            Almost everyone in the US is familiar with the concept of Halloween. On the 31st of every October, people of various ages will don costumes and partake in trick-or-treating (or simply party, depending on one’s age). Halloween is a day of spooky enjoyment as families break out the cobwebs and jack-o’-lanterns in an (often comedic) imitation of the ghostly and the ghoulish.

            Everyone knows the traditions of carving pumpkins and giving out candy. Horror-themed parties are common, with their colorful costumes and delicious desserts. But how often do the participants think of the history? 

Do they ever consider the past? What is Halloween? Where did it come from?

According to the History Channel’s website, Halloween began nearly 2000 years ago, as a Celtic holiday called Samhain (sow-in). 

As the site states: “Celts believed that on the night before the new year [theirs was November 1st], the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was blurred. On the night of October 31st they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the death returned to earth”

The Celts lit bonfires, made sacrifices, and wore elaborate costumes as part of their celebration. When the Romans conquered the Celts two of their holidays, Feralia and another honoring the goddess Pomona, were added to the mix. Then in 1000 AD, another holiday was created: All-Souls’ Day, an honoring of the dead initiated by the Catholic Church. 

All-Souls’ Day was celebrated much like Samhain, with bonfires, parades, and costumes—though the meanings were slightly different given the cultural/religious differences. The night before All-Souls’ Day was called All Hallows’ Eve—which evolved into the name Halloween.

As America began to develop in the 18th century, Halloween followed suit. American Indian traditions blended with the holiday. It was not celebrated as widely, especially in the Protestant North—mostly the celebrations were understood to be “fall festivals” of sorts. The Colonial Halloween (as called by the History Channel website), “also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds”.

Halloween was not celebrated nationally until the arrival of multiple immigrant groups in the late 19th century. The attitude of the holiday shifted then as well, becoming less about superstition and religion and more about community. 

Trick-or-treating began around this time as well. As time went on, and Halloween shifted again in the 20th century to focus more on the younger generations, the holiday continued its development into what many of us recognize today. 

So this Halloween, when everyone is enjoying the candy and the parties and the costumes, remember that you are participating in a holiday that goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years. 

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