A History of Halloween

I can’t believe Halloween is tomorrow! It seems as though this semester just started. Halloween is a great time to forget the stress of classes and midterms and to dress up and have fun for a weekend!

The Halloween traditions we know and love originated in the religious festival of Samhain (Nov 1). The Celtic festival of Samhain was a celebration marking the end of the Harvest season as people looked ahead towards and prepared for the cold months that were to come. The dark and cold winter was often associated with death because of the hardships (freezing to death, starvation, etc) that came with it. To the Celts that lived in what is now Ireland, the coming of winter meant a blurring of the line between life and death, and allowing spirits to pass through to the “living” world of people were not careful. To prevent this, Celtic priests lit huge bonfires which were then used to re-lit the hearths of everyone in the village. This fire would protect the residents of the house from the spirits of the dead. Many of the traditions that originated in the original All Saint’s Day celebration eventually led to the traditions and practices we follow on Halloween in the US now.

As the influence of Catholicism spread to Ireland, traditional festivals such as Samhain blended with Christian traditions such as All Saint’s Day, a day to celebrate all of the Saints in the Catholic church. To go along with this day, some of the Samhain traditions were adopted in a celebration called All Soul’s Day, which is still celebrated in the Catholic Church on November 2nd, and is a day to honor you friends and family members who have passed away. The combination of these traditions, as well as the All Hallow’s Eve night before All Saint’s Day, were brought to America by immigrants from Catholic countries, specifically to the American colony of Maryland. The immigration boom from Ireland during the years of the Irish potato famine helped to spread the ideas and traditions of Halloween across the states.

During the eighteenth century, Halloween shifted from a time to celebrate and fear the dead to the more fun, community oriented celebrations we know and love today. The tradition of trick or treating was inspired by English and Irish traditions, and partly because of this, there was an emphasis put on being neighborly and kind during Halloween. Eventually, Halloween in the United States lost many of the heavily religious undertones, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, it was just a fun celebration to dress up and get some extra treats!

The American tradition of Halloween, though it was born in Celtic religious traditions, does not really resemble the original Samhain festival. Now, Halloween is seen more of a commercial opportunity, as Americans spend an estimated $6 billion on the holiday! No matter what your thoughts on the religious and cultural history of Halloween, it’s fun to put on a cute outfit and treat yourself to something sweet!


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