Dating back to the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, which celebrated the Celtic New Year every November 1, it was believed that spirits would attempt to inhabit the living, as the boundaries between the two were blurred around this time of year. In order to keep the spirits from wreaking havoc, crops were burned and animals were sacrificed into bonfires built by the Druids (Celtic priests), with the skins used as costumes as they told each others’ fortunes.
When the Romans conquered the Celtic territory in the first century, they adopted the traditions of Samhain and combined it with two Roman festivals: Feralia, a day which honored the deceased, and another festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. Symbolized by the apple, it is believed that Pomona’s inclusion in Samhain led to the modern day tradition of bobbing for apples.
By the turn of the ninth century, Christianity had spread throughout the Celtic territory. Pope Boniface IV had declared November 1 as All Saint’s Day—a time to honor saints and martyrs—two centuries prior. It was believed the Pope wished to eradicate the Celtic festivals, substituting them with a church-sanctioned observance instead.
When Europeans immigrated to America, many brought with them the various customs and celebrations, although they were not practiced evenly throughout the colonies. Frowned upon by the strict Protestants in the New England area, traditions were mostly carried out in the more southern colonies. Mixed with American Indian beliefs, The American update of Halloween began to blossom. Harvest celebrations, fortune-telling, singing and dancing, as well as stories of the dead took root. Jack-o-lanterns, of Celtic folklore using turnips in their legend, became pumpkins once the Irish came to America and noticed the abundance of pumpkins instead.
As the centuries progressed, Halloween became more of a secular, community-oriented holiday whose religious origins had faded. Celebrated by both children and adults in the early to mid-twentieth century, vandalism became commonplace around Halloween. In an effort to make celebrations in the streets safer, community leaders quashed vandalism attempts and children became the focus of the October holiday. The “spookiness” factor also subsided, as parents wanted to make Halloween safer and less frightening for young children. Trick-or-treating, an old Irish custom of going door-to-door for money and food, transformed into children seeking sweet treats.
Although sanitized for the younger set, Halloween is rich in tradition and textured in custom, with a blend of celebrations mixed from many parts of the world over millennia. The religious rituals of this nighttime celebration may have escaped modern participants, but historians will undoubtedly recall what marked the occasion and keep its spirit alive.