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The Obscure Origins of Halloween

Discover the rich history behind this spooky holiday.

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  • 'Danse Macabre', a late 15th-century painting by Bernt Notke.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Like most of our holidays, Halloween has its roots in a wide variety of different cultural practices, some of which have stuck around—often with their origins obscured—while others have been forgotten or have fallen out of favor. The word itself is of Scots origin, dating back to 1745, and describes the night before the Christian holiday of All Hallows’ Day.

All Hallows’ Day is the beginning of Allhallowtide, a season of several days in which Christian saints, martyrs, and all those who have died are remembered. In many parts of the world, the faithful still observe All Hallows’ Eve in a variety of traditional ways, including lighting candles on the graves of the dead. 

The “hallow” part of Halloween comes from another word for “saints,” while “een” is a shortening of “evening” or the Scottish word for “eve.” Indeed, many of the Christian observances related to All Hallows’ Eve may have influenced some of the traditions we now associate with the largely secular holiday of Halloween.

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The practice of “souling,” for example, may have influenced our modern-day trick-or-treating. In a tradition dating back to medieval times, Christians would bake “soul cakes” on All Hallows’ Eve. These small, round shortbread biscuits were filled with sweet spices like ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, as well as raisins or currants, and were either left out as an offering to the dead, or handed out to children and the poor, who would go from door to door singing and saying prayers “for the souls of the givers and their friends.”

In fact, in some parts of the world, souling is still practiced today—such as in the Philippines, where it is known as “pangangaluluwa”. However, like many other ostensibly Christian holidays, some scholars believe that Halloween has roots that run even deeper than the Christian traditions associated with the day.

Related: The Fascinating Folklore Origins of Santa Claus

Among the Celts of ancient Britain and Ireland, the day corresponding to our modern November 1 was the start of the new year. Known as Samhain, the festival celebrating the arrival of the new year was an important one in Celtic life. It marked the start of winter, when herds were returned from grazing and land tenures were renewed. Great bonfires were lit, from which people in the community would relight their own hearth fires.

Samhain was also the time when the dead were said to return to visit their homes and when those who had died during the course of the previous year would begin their journey to the other side. As the villain in Halloween III: Season of the Witch says, “It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we’d be waiting in our houses of wattles and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in to sit by our fires of turf.”

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  • Revelers bob for apples and play another version of the game in which apples are suspended by a string in Snap-Apple Night, or All-Hallow Eve by Daniel Maclise, 1845.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The wearing of costumes on Halloween may also have come from these early Celtic celebrations, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Christian minister and religious scholar Prince Sorie Conteh wrote that, “It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. In order to avoid being recognized by any soul that might be seeking such vengeance, people would don masks or costumes to disguise their identities."

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When the Roman Empire conquered much of Britain and Ireland in the first century CE, they brought their own festivals to the region. Feralia was the Roman celebration commemorating the dead and also celebrating Pomona, the goddess of the harvest. It was not until the eighth century CE that the pope officially moved the celebration of All Saints’ Day from its original position on May 13 to November 1, thereby conflating it with the traditions of Samhain.

The carving of pumpkins into Jack-o-lanterns probably also had its origin in these early Celtic celebrations and beliefs, although back then the lantern was more likely to be a turnip than a pumpkin. Indeed, long after Romans had colonized the holiday, the lighting of candles to help guide the souls of the dead back to the homes of their loved ones—while also keeping more malign spirits at bay—continued.

Meanwhile, in much of continental Europe, another tradition sprang up during the medieval era. Once a year, the dead of the churchyards were said to rise up for one wild, hideous carnival, which came to be known as the “danse macabre.” 

This revelry of the dead has frequently been incorporated into church decoration and medieval art, and is believed to have been enacted at village pageants throughout much of Europe, especially France. Attendees dressed up as corpses from various social classes, which may provide another source for the origins of dressing up as scary things on Halloween.

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“Christians were moved by the sight of the Infant Jesus playing on his mother’s knee,” Christopher Allmand and Rosamond McKitterick wrote in The New Cambridge Medieval History, “their hearts were touched by the Pieta; and patron saints reassured them by their presence. But, all the while, the danse macabre urged them not to forget the end of all earthly things.”

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  • All Saints' Day celebrated at a Polish cemetery, 2017.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In later years, the Reformation put an end to the celebration of Halloween as a religious holiday for many Protestants, but in predominantly Catholic countries, the traditional All Hallows’ Eve observances continued. Eventually, many in Britain and elsewhere celebrated the secular traditions of Halloween, even while leaving behind the religious trappings of the holiday.

Halloween was slow to spread to North America, with the early Puritan settlers staunchly rejecting it, as they did many other traditions of the Catholic Church. It was not until the 19th century that mass immigration from Ireland and Scotland brought an uptick in Halloween celebrations to the States, and not until the early 20th century that it was widely celebrated coast to coast.

Today, of course, Halloween is big business. In fact, Americans are projected to spend a record-breaking $9 billion on Halloween-related consumer goods in 2021, whether that’s costumes, candy, lawn decorations, you name it. This doesn’t come close to matching the biggest holidays of the year in terms of spending. But Halloween has still come a long way from those “houses of wattles and clay.”