So Halloween is just around the corner, and I’m sure everyone has their costume ready. But do you really know the true meaning of Halloween?
The origins of Halloween date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in what is now modern day Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their New Year on the 1st November. For the Celts the New Year marked the end of summer and the harvest, and the beginning of the cold, dark winter. They believed that on the night before the New Year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, therefore on this day it was possible for the ghosts of the dead to return to Earth.
Now this is great, but I’m sure you’re wondering what this has to do with Halloween. Well, first we have to jump a few centuries into the future and look at the Catholic Church to explain this. On 13th May, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV established the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from 13th May to 1st November.
Now, if we jump forward yet another few centuries, we can see how the Celtic and Catholic faiths started to interact. By the 9th century, Christianity’s influence was growing fast across Europe and it had reached the Celtic lands. This influence precipitated the blending of Christian beliefs with Celtic ones. Because of this in 1000 A.D., the Catholic Church made 2nd November All Souls’ Day, a day to honour the dead, in reaction to the beliefs blending into the Catholic faith from the Celtic religion and the Celtic festival of Samhain. All Souls’ Day was celebrated very much in the same way as Samhain, and it is believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a Christian festival. Now, how did all of this result in Halloween? Well, All Saints Day was also called All-hallows, and the night before it, the night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve, and eventually this name changed into the name we use today, Halloween.
So this is how the name Halloween came to be, but back in 1000 A.D., even though the name of Samhain had changed; the holiday was still a religious holiday. So what happened to change this religious holiday into the commercial family holiday that we celebrate today?
Halloween Comes to America
As the European empires expended, such as the British and the Spanish Empires, they brought an influx of Europeans to the Americas, and these Europeans brought with them their religion and customs. As the beliefs and customs of different European groups and those of Native Americans began to mix together, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.
The first Halloween celebrations in the USA included public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbours would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. Thus, these Halloween celebrations still maintained some of the traditions from the original Samhain celebrations which honoured the dead. However, these celebrations were limited to New England and the rest of the USA did not yet celebrate Halloween. But, during the second half of the 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants, especially millions of people from Ireland. As these immigrants celebrated Halloween, they helped to popularise the holiday across the country. The Irish also brought with them a tradition of going from house to house asking for food or money, this tradition eventually became known as Trick-or-Treating, however, trick-or-treating did not gain much popularity until later in the 20th century.
During the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mould Halloween into a holiday that focused more on community than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. During this period, parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of this, Halloween began to lose most of its religious meaning, as it stopped being a holiday that was related to honouring the dead, as the dead were seen as “frightening” and “grotesque”. A few decades later, between 1920 and 1950, this move caused trick-or-treating to gain a lot of popularity, as it was seen as a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In addition to this, dressing up and having parties also became part of the community celebrations. All of this over the course of the last century has come together to create the commercial Halloween holiday we all know today. From the USA's influence in the world, Halloween is now celebrated in this way in many other countries, such as the UK and Australia.
So there you go, now you know how the American tradition of Halloween was born.