The Curious Origins of Halloween

Photo by Toni Cuenca from Pexels

It’s October, a month whose entire identity is consumed in the long shadow of its iconic holiday: Halloween.

It seems that every year, once October begins, everyone rushes to buy their 12-foot-tall skeleton from Home Depot, spread artificial cobwebs through the house and begin work on a fiendish costume. For a celebration of the scary and macabre, Halloween is a massively popular holiday enjoyed by adults and children alike (albeit for different reasons entirely). But how did it all begin?

It turns out, Halloween has its origins in the Celtic tradition of Samhain, observed in Ireland over 2,000 years ago. The end of summer marked the end of harvesting and the beginning of a harsh winter. It was the belief of the Celtics that this trying time blurred the lines between the world of the living and the dead, culminating into Samhain on October 31 when ghosts would once again walk the earth. Thinking of this as the peak of their connection to the spiritual world, the Celtics celebrated by ritualistically offering their livestock and crops as tributes to their deities. They would attend these celebrations garbed in full costumes made from animal hides they had collected.

Eventually, when Celtic lands came under the influence of Christian interests, the holiday was adapted into a church sanctioned event called All-hallows in 1,000 A.D. People would build bonfires and parade in costumes of saints, or devils if you were particularly daring.

Initially, the holiday was slow to come to America due to the rigid Puritanism of the New England colonies. As European migrants came to America and settled in the southern colonies, though, their beliefs and celebrations began to take root. Fall festivals featuring costumes, ghost stories and mischief making were common by the 19th century but remained unofficial and largely regionalized to the south.

It was in the latter half of the 19th century, when Irish immigrants came to America en masse, that the holiday began to stand out and take prominence nationally. While the European traditions were largely meant for adults to party and cause mischief, many American parents were worried about their children being influenced by witchcraft and sought a more community-focused angle for the holiday. From the movement was born the tradition of family-oriented Halloween parties, non-spiritual costumes, and the community activity of trick or treating for children. By the 20th century, Halloween had become a secular holiday.

This turn of tone allowed for influence over the holiday to come from any sector, such as Universal’s monster movies popularizing many of the aesthetic trappings of Halloween - to this day, we are still seeing Frankenstein’s Monsters, Draculas’ and maybe even the occasional Wolfman if you’re lucky.

Halloween has come a long way through American history and has changed many times, yet its persistence through history and multiple religious and cultural influences indicates a universal appeal. Still, over 1,000 years later, October inspires for so many people a curiosity into the creepy and otherworldly. Here’s to another 1,000 years!

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