Halloween is the best time of the year for horror fans. Whether its horror movie marathons in the dead of night, the visits to haunted houses, or the haunting fall mood, it’s just the perfect time for horror.
Where did Halloween come from though? Why do children run around asking for candy and pulling pranks on unsuspecting bystanders?
Surprisingly, the origins of Halloween aren’t that straightforward. It evolved from many different festivals and religious celebrations. In different places all over the world, it has different meanings and connotations.
In some communities, it is still a religious occasion where respect is paid to the dead as opposed to the secular candy and horror film that many of us are used to. In other traditions, it is considered a satanic and dangerous holiday.
So let’s explore the different places that Halloween comes from for us to understand the origin of the macabre holiday.
Celtic and other Pagan Holidays
There’s something very special about the time of year that Halloween falls in. It’s in the fall!
Specifically, it’s around the time of harvest for most crop growing communities.
This harvest season time frame means that many of the pagan communities that existed in Europe and North America before the spread of Christianity, already had harvest festivals at the same time of year that we now celebrate Halloween.
Many traditions from these festivities have made their way into the Halloween we celebrate now. The most popular of these is the carving of pumpkins or other fall produce.
In particular, modern day Halloween borrows very strongly from a very specific Celtic festival called Samhain. The Celts were a pagan civilization that existed in Ireland before the introduction of Christianity.
Many modern day holidays and traditions actually come from the traditions of the Celts, most important of these being Halloween. Samhain is an Old Irish phrase that means ‘summer’s end.’ It was celebrated all over Ireland as a way to welcome in the harvest and prepare the community for the hard work of the harvest season. It was also used to signify the beginning of the ‘darker half’ of the year and the hardships and fears that come with it.
Samhain was also seen as a liminal time, meaning the barrier between the real world of people and the other world of fairies and spirits can be much more easily crossed. This meant that spirits could cross over to our world easily to cause mischief, or that rituals could be conducted to communicate with otherworldly creatures.
Samhain conveniently starts on the sunset of October 31 and ends on the sunset of November 1.
What does Halloween get from Samhain?
The horror and supernatural elements that are associated with Halloween mainly come from the traditions of Samhain.
Divination games were often played during Samhain in Celtic communities. These are games in which people would try to communicate with or interact with other worldly spirits or fairies—very similar to the way Ouija boards are often played with.
Many rituals were conducted to ward off evil spirits or other malicious supernatural entities during the holiday, since the Celtic pagans believed that these creatures could much more easily cross over to the real world during the holiday.
Halloween also owes one of its most important elements to Samhain, and that is: Trick or Treating!
It was believed that during Samhain, benevolent and friendly spirits would also cross over into reality looking for food and company. Therefore, food would often be left in bowls outside of houses and farms where it was believed that spirits would go from house to house looking for food and entertainment.
Towns and villages also held large feasts where it is believed that these spirits would eat with the people of the town.
The fear and horror of Halloween also owes a lot to Samhain. Children were discouraged from going out, especially into forests, as it was seen as a dangerous time. It was also meant to signify the start of the half of the year where things are dark and desolate.
Christianity and Halloween
Halloween gets the other half of its history from Christianity. Most importantly its name. Halloween is actually a contraction of the phrase “All Hallows’ Eve”.
All Hallows’ Eve is a Christian holiday in which dead saints are paid respects and the dead in general are prayed for with vigils and candles.
It is believed that the association between All Hallows’ Eve and death is the reason why many of the symbols and decorations we usually see in Halloween revolve around death and the dead coming back to life. All Hallows Eve’s used to be celebrated early during the early days of Christianity as Christians tried to assimilate pagan cultures into their own cultures to facilitate conversion.
It was then moved to coincide with Samhain so that previously Pagan cultures who would already venerate the dead during Samhain can more easily accept Christian teachings.
Due to this change and attempt at conversion, the Christian festival of All Hallows’ Eve intermingled to create early Halloween. Early Halloween was therefore an interesting and exciting mixture of Celtic culture and Christian teachings.
As time carried on, the Christian celebration of All Hallows’ Eve went beyond monks venerating saints and the recent dead.
Halloween as we know it actually began in its earliest form during the 16th century. A tradition of guising existed in Ireland at the time.
Guising was the act of dressing up in costume to imitate Celtic spirits and going house to house in which groups of costumed people would recite songs and verses. In exchange for this performance they would be given food and drink.
This costume wearing event eventually spread slowly during these centuries into Scotland and the Isle of Man, and the practice of guising – which eventually would evolve to become modern day trick or treating – spread across Britain, especially in areas with many Irish Immigrants.
During the early days of Halloween, it was still seen as a pagan ritual even though it coincided with All Hallows’ Eve. Many Christian communities viewed it with distrust or disgust.
While this was the case, the act of guising then evolved in Scotland. Oftentimes, youths would dress in painted masks on Halloween and go house to house, promising mischief if they were not provided food or allowed into the house. This custom was then the origin of the “trick” in trick or treat and was the start of pulling pranks on Halloween.
Christians would eventually adopt these Halloween customs, and poor churches that couldn’t afford to venerate saints or the dead in more extravagant ways would instead hire actors to dress up as saints and venerate them.
Jack o’ Lanterns and Costume Parties
As Halloween began to make peace with both its Pagan and its Christian origins, new customs began to arise. Many Christians celebrating Halloween would walk around dimly lit towns during the night with lanterns carved from turnips.
These turnips would be carved into grim faces and were meant to symbolize the dead that were to be venerated during Halloween. Eventually when Halloween moved to the new world and pumpkins became more abundant, this tradition was switched over to carved pumpkins instead of traditional carved turnips.
In some places, it is turnips that are carved up to this day. Another popular Halloween tradition that also arose in this era were costume parties.
Many villages would hold a “Danse Macabre” during Halloween night. This is a dance in which haunting music would be played while people would dress as the dead from different sectors of society.
The original purpose of this dance was more religious. It originated as an event that would remind the men and women of the village of their mortality and the temporary nature of all things.
Eventually these dances would turn into costume parties. Finally, many Halloween decorations developed in the same way. Churches and houses would hang fake skeletons and witches from their roofs to scare away any evil creatures of the night.
By the time the new world was discovered, Halloween had begun to look like the holiday we know and love today.
Halloween Makes It to the New World
With the wave of immigration from Ireland into the America’s, Halloween spread to the new world, where many of the ideas evolved. Jack o’ Lanterns were made out of pumpkins and other new world fall produce instead of the traditional figs. The focus shifted on protecting houses from evil spirits to having more to do with witches and malicious people.
Halloween, most importantly, faced many difficulties in the new world. Puritan immigrant populations opposed the celebration of Halloween and saw it as Pagan and harmful to their Christian faith. New world culture also played a big role in secularising Halloween.
By the time the 20th century had rolled in, the association between Halloween and Christianity had begun to disappear. Halloween had become more of a cultural phenomenon. Eventually all the new customs and habits associated with Halloween made their way back to Ireland and the rest of the world.
One of the most important things the new world added to Halloween was the introduction of new cultures that had similar festivals to All Hallows’ Eve. Many cultures in the world had festivals at the beginning of fall that celebrated the harvest, and existed to venerate the dead and offer hospitality to spirits. For example, the Mexican day of the dead falls on November second and similarly exists to venerate the dead and to usher in the fall season. Many of these festivals had an impact of some sort on the development of Halloween, at least in the parts of the world where they originated.
Modern day Halloween
By the early 20th century, Halloween as we now know it was born. The term guising had fallen out of fashion, as it had spiritual connotations. Instead, children began to use the phrase trick or treat, and the food that was handed out was replaced with candies and other child appropriate treats.
The biggest push for Halloween as a big cultural event was made by companies who sold sweets that tried to market it as an important holiday for children. As the holiday spread throughout the rest of the world with the spread of American culture, some cultures embraced it and added their own twist.
As the subculture of horror films and literature began to become popular in the world over, Halloween became a favorite time for horror fans to enjoy and celebrate their favorite movies and books.
And the modern association between Halloween and horror was born. The Halloween industry is massive, with millions of costumes sold per year and extravagant parades held in various cities, like The New York Halloween parade which attracts people from all across the world.
Halloween Now and Forever
Halloween isn’t going anywhere. It’s become an important part of international culture and festivities. Following Christmas and New Year’s, it is one of the most celebrated holidays all over the globe.
There just seems to be something very special about fall that makes everyone comfortable with thinking about death and the supernatural world. Besides, when it comes to horror aficionados, who wouldn’t like to think they’re out celebrating amongst the ghosts, ghouls and monsters?