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The City Journals

The History of Halloween

Oct 09, 2020 10:40AM ● By Cassie Goff

The origins of Halloween as we know it trace back to the three-day Celtic festival of Samhain. (Wikicommons License)

By Cassie Goff | [email protected]

It’s easy to tell when Halloween is near with the 5-pound bags of candy, skeletons, bats, and orange and black decorations that cover the holiday section at every local store. Pop-up shops appear in vacant stores with their animatronics and overpriced makeup and costumes. Pumpkin-flavored drinks dominate coffee shop menus. There’s a nip in the air and leaves change in response.

However, the American telltale signs of Halloween which put many of us in the spooky spirit are far removed from the historical traditions of the celebration. All over the world, celebrations concerning the afterlife in various ways have been documented between Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 (on contemporary calendars).

Many historians, including Professor of History at York University in Toronto Nicholas Rogers (author of “Halloween: from pagan ritual to party”) attribute the oldest Halloween traditions to Samhain – a three day ancient Celtic pagan festival. Samhain was celebrated by the Celts who lived in what is now Ireland, Scotland, Britain, and the Isle of Man. The festival marked the end of summer as it occurred in between the autumn equinox and winter solstice.

During Samhain, it was believed that the veil between the otherworld and human world was at its thinnest. The souls of those who had died within the year would travel to the otherworld and those who had died beforehand would visit the human world. It was also believed that the gods would visit the human world to play tricks. Many rituals were performed throughout the three days to protect humans from the spirits and gods. Since the festival occurred on the heels of autumn, the Celts would perform many rituals believed to help them survive through the winter as well.

When Rome conquered the Celtic lands in 43 A.D., Samhain was lost. The truth regarding how and why may never be fully understood, but a few hypotheses exist. The Romans had their own celebrations which may have merged with or replaced Samhain. Feralia, a festival honoring the passing of the dead occurred in late October. In addition, the Romans celebrated the turn of the season with a festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of the harvest (or the goddess of fruit and trees).

Prior to the seventh century, the Catholic Church celebrated All Saints’ Day, also known as All-Hallow, in May. It was, and remains, a day to honor the Christian martyrs and saints. However, around 837 C.E. Pope Boniface IV declared All Saints’ Day as a holiday to be celebrated on Nov. 1. A few different theories exist surrounding this decision.

Some believe that the sole intention here was expansion. All Saints’ Day and Samhain had similar practices, celebrating with food, drinks, costumes, tricks, pranks and appeasing the dead. It seemed quite easy to reframe many of the pagan practices as Catholic celebrations. As Samhain continued to be practiced, more people learned about Catholicism. Others believe the move was made in order to replace the pagan holiday with a church-sanctioned celebration.

On the other side of the world, Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica Aztecs and Nahuas celebrated the dead around the same time of the year. As the Spanish conquistadores destroyed much of the Aztec Empire’s written records and language during the 1500s, not much is known about the 3,000-year-old traditions and rituals.

One of the known Aztec traditions, however, was a festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuafl, the lady of the dead, who governs them and watches over their bones. She is believed to swallow the stars during the day. Mictecacihuafl is often depicted with a skull face and a skirt made of serpents.

Today, Día de los Muertos is celebrated all over the world. The modern holiday is thought to be a mix of indigenous Aztec rituals and Catholic celebrations introduced by the Spaniards. Día de los Muertos is a celebration for the deceased.

It is believed that on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, the gates to the spiritual world are opened, allowing spirits to visit their families for 24 hours. On Oct. 31 at midnight, the Day of the Innocents begins, as Angelitos reunite with their families. On Nov. 1 at midnight, the gates open once again for the adults to visit their families.

Families often arrange ofrendas, personal altars honoring a loved one, decorate graves, and provide sweet candy for their deceased loved ones to help balance the bitterness of death.  

Even though this article only mentions a handful of celebrations concerned with the dead around the same time of the year, many other cultures throughout the world have history of similar celebrations: Carnaval de Oruro in Bolivia, Hungry Ghost Festival in China, La Quema del Diablo in Guatemala, Jour des Morts in Haiti, Velija Noc in Indo-European Countries, Hop-tu-Naa in The Isle of Man, Obon Festival in Japan and the Odo Festival in Nigeria. This year, as we celebrate Halloween, consider for a moment how many cultures celebrate the dead around the same week of the year. Eerie, right?