by Matthew Bruning '20
America is expected to spend $9.1 billion dollars on Halloween this year (The History of All Hallows' Eve). But for such a popular holiday, its origins are little known—so how did we get to the Halloween we have today?
Beginning over 2,000 years ago in the British Isles, Halloween originated as the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-win), which literally means “summer’s end” in Gaelic (The Origins of Halloween). Samhain was one of four important festivals in the Celtic calendar, and like Halloween it was practiced on the night of October 31st (Samhain). The feast of Samhain was “an annual communal meeting at the end of the harvest year, a time to gather resources for the winter months and bring animals back from the pastures” (History of Halloween). The Celts believed that the coming winter was a time of death, and Samhain was a night where spirits returned from the grave to haunt the living (The History of All Hallows' Eve). The Druids, or the pagan Celtic priests, would build bonfires for the people to dance around to ward off the evil ghosts and to encourage the Sun to not vanish in the night (The Origins of Halloween).
The Romans later conquered most of the Celtic territory, and as a result the two holiday traditions fused. In particular, two Roman festivals around the same time influenced Samhain: Feralia, or “the commemoration of the passing of the dead,” and the festival of Pomona, the “Roman goddess of fruits and trees” (The Origins of Halloween). Feralia contributed to the importance of death, while Pomona led to the tradition of bobbing for apples (The Origins of Halloween).
Finally, as Christianity took root in the British Isles, the native practices once again were synthesized with the invading religion. The Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Mass, takes place on November 1st, with All Souls’ Day coming the day after. As a result, October 31st, the day of Samhain, became known as All Hallows’ Eve (History of Halloween).
From there, the history of Halloween becomes more complicated. Most of the popular traditions of the holiday now—trick-or-treating, dressing up in costumes, throwing Halloween parties—developed as American customs over long periods of time as a result of cultural mixing (History of Halloween).
Who knows? Maybe a few of the old traditions will arise this year, and we’ll have a few bonfires here and there.