What is Halloween and Where Does it Come From?

Halloween is a holiday observed every year on October 31st, and in 2021, it will be held on Sunday, October 31st. The custom dates back to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, when people lit bonfires and dressed up in costumes to fend off ghosts. Pope Gregory III established November 1 as a day to celebrate all saints in the ninth century. All Saints Day soon incorporated elements of Samhain's customs. All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween, was the night before. Trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, celebratory parties, donning costumes, and eating treats have all become part of Halloween's tradition.

Ancient Origins of Halloween

The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain. On November 1, the Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year.

This day signified the end of summer and harvest, as well as the start of the dark, frigid winter, which was traditionally connected with human death. Celts thought that during the night before New Year's Day, the line between the living and the dead blurred. They celebrated Samhain on October 31st, when it was thought that the spirits of the dead returned to earth.

Apart from causing havoc and destroying crops, Celts believed that the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier for Druids, or Celtic priests, to make future forecasts. These forecasts were a source of consolation for a people who were completely reliant on the turbulent natural environment during the long, dark winter.

When the Romans arrived in Britain, Celtic customs began to merge with the Roman festivals of Feralia and Pomona. Feralia honored the dead in the same way that Halloween does, while Pomona honored the goddess of fruits and trees.

By the 9th century, Christianity had expanded throughout Celtic territories, eventually blending with and displacing ancient Celtic ceremonies. The church declared November 2nd, 1000 A.D., to be All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. Today, it's largely assumed that the church was aiming to replace the Celtic celebration of the dead with a church-approved event.

All Souls' Day was observed in the same way as Samhain, with large bonfires, parades, and people dressed up as saints, angels, and demons. The festival of All Saints' Day was also known as All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse, which means All Saints' Day), and the night before it, Samhain in Celtic religion, became known as All-Hallows Eve and, finally, Halloween.

As the beliefs and rituals of various European ethnic groups and American Indians collided, a uniquely American version of Halloween arose. "Play parties," which were public activities meant to celebrate the harvest, were among the first celebrations. Neighbors would tell each other ghost stories, tell fortunes, dance, and sing.

Taking inspiration from European customs, Americans began dressing up in costumes and going door to door asking for food or money, a practice that evolved into the "trick-or-treat" ritual we know today. Young ladies believed that by performing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors on Halloween, they could discern the name or appearance of their future husband.

In the late 1800s, there was a push in America to make Halloween more about community and neighborly gatherings than ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. Newspapers and community leaders urged parents to remove anything "frightening" or "grotesque" from Halloween celebrations. By the turn of the twentieth century, Halloween had lost most of its superstitious and religious connotations as a result of these efforts.

The centuries-old tradition of trick-or-treating was also revived between 1920 and 1950. Trick-or-treating was a low-cost way for a whole community to participate in the Halloween celebration. In theory, families may also prevent tricks from being played on them by presenting little presents to the neighborhood kids.

As a result, a new American custom was formed, and it has grown ever since. Halloween is now the country's second-largest commercial event, after Christmas, with an estimated $6 billion spent yearly.

Closer look to the costume tradition

Looking at Halloween costumes may reveal a lot about a period of American history, including not only what people are terrified of, but also what's popular in entertainment and who's running for president.

Back then, Halloween costumes were primarily handcrafted and focused on eerie themes (as opposed to current events). It wasn't so much about dressing up as a specific creature or character as it was about concealing one's identity in a frightening style that recalled themes like ghosts, witches, pumpkins, black cats, and the moon.

Here, woman dressed as witches line up for a Halloween portrait, circa 1910

Americans employed cosmetics and costumes to take on diverse personas in the early twentieth century, and it was usually a DIY effort. Paper masks or aprons for children were the only commercial costumes available in the early twentieth century. It wasn't so much about looking like a ghost or a goblin as it was about being spooky and concealing the identity of the person behind the mask. Disguises were especially useful for children and teenagers, who would frequently spend Halloween night flinging flour at individuals, stealing neighbors' fences, or even snatching dead bodies.

During the Great Depression, especially after 1933, this altered. Hundreds of young guys throughout the country flipped cars, sawed off telephone poles, and committed other acts of vandalism on Halloween. To keep young people out of trouble, concerned adults began organizing neighborhood activities such as trick-or-treating, haunted houses, and costume parties. As a result of this shift in focus, new forms of children's costumes have emerged.

Here is a photo of a girl with a Mickey Mouse mask, 1930’s

In the 1970s, Halloween costumes took on a more mature tone. This was the time when Americans began to wear presidential masks, the most famous of which was that of Richard Nixon. In 1969, a protester donned a Nixon mask to an anti-war march the day before Nixon's inauguration, which was the first media account of a presidential mask.

Over the next few decades, a slew of other pop culture-related costume trends arose. With the development of slasher horror films in the 1970s and 1980s, Halloween costumes got more brutal. From the 1960s until the 1990s, "sexy" costumes for women were popular, and "sexy" versions of store-bought costumes became a well-known commercial commodity. Costumes based on highly charged current events were also available from manufacturers. Costume stores sold masks of both Simpson and the presiding Judge Ito in 1995, the year of the O.J. Simpson trial.

And today, people dress-up in all types of costumes, from the latest TV Show characters, to historical figures. Movies about Halloween, Halloween themed snacks and parties… This tradition keeps drawing interest worldwide.