Despite the sinister associations of ghosts, demons, and other supernatural entities with it, when we talk about the festival of Halloween today, most of us conjure up an image of a light-hearted time for children to dress up in costumes and feast on candy, and for people to have fun in general. With the near-ubiquity of its celebrations in Europe and North America, complete with all the trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, and dressing up in costumes, Halloween is as secular as festivals.
What not many people know is that hasn’t always been the case. The origins of Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, as it is properly called, actually lie in pagan religious traditions—specifically, very early Celtic religious traditions of Britain and Ireland.
The Celtic festival of Samhain — not pronounced the way you think it is, it’s actually pronounced SAH-win — marked the end of the harvest season for the Celtic people and the beginning of winter, that is, the “darker part” of the year. When equated with the Gregorian calendar, the festival of Samhain was held on November 1, but because the Celtic day started and ended with sunset, the celebrations began on the evening of October 31st. Like with some other seasonal Celtic festivals, Samhain was a liminal festival, meaning that the boundary between the mortal world and other worlds was believed to have been thinned on its occasion.
The earliest mentions of Samhain are found in Irish literature from as early as the 9th century, where there are also mentions of great gatherings and feasts as part of the celebrations, with some texts also linking it with bonfires and sacrifices. Through disparate pieces and parts of the literature, some other beliefs regarding Samhain can also be pieced together, such as the significance of ancient burial mounds being open on the occasion and acting as portals to the other world.
It was believed that throughout Samhain, the souls of those who had died would come back to roam the earth and visit their earthly abodes. Because this was a harvest festival, people would also make giant bonfires on hilltops in hopes of their hearth fires being rekindled for the coming winter and also to frighten away evil spirits. The tradition of masks and costumes can also be traced back to Samhain celebrations, where people would wear a myriad of disguises in an attempt to avoid being recognised by the spirits.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s no surprise because that is where most of the rituals and traditions associated with Halloween today come from, including its association with ghosts, witches, goblins, and demons, among others.
In the 1st century CE, Julius Caesar began his invasion of Britain, and eventually, the Romans conquered the Celts and their land. When the Romans came, they brought with them their own festival of harvest, observed in respect to Pomona, the goddess of harvest and fruitful abundance. The Romans also brought the festival of Feralia, a public festival commemorating the passing of the dead and their passage into the next world. Many historians theorise that it is extremely likely the elements from both of these festivals blended and mixed nebulously with those of the festival of Samhain.
It was in the 7th century that a Christian festival called All Saints’ Day was established by Pope Boniface IV. While originally held on May 13 according to the Gregorian calendar, it was shifted to November 1 somewhere within the next hundred years, likely in an attempt to supersede Samhain as a pagan religious observance. Thus, the evening before All Saints’ Day became a holy period, or hallowed time, hence All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. All Saints’ Day was also followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2.
Over the next few hundred years, the pagan and Christian traditions mixed with each other, and by the end of the Medieval Age, All Hallows’ Eve had become a significantly secular tradition. By the time the Reformation rolled around in the 16th century, however, the Church put a hard stop to religious observances of Halloween among Protestants. Even so, it continued to be celebrated as a secular holiday, mostly in England, Ireland, and Scotland.
When the British started to colonise the Americas and the Puritans settled in New England, however, they didn’t take any of these traditions with them. On the contrary, any observance of Halloween rituals or traditions was strictly prohibited among the early Puritan settlers.
However, over the next few centuries, there was a steady influx of immigrants into North America from all over the world, first slowly, and later on, in larger and larger numbers. Among these numbers were immigrants from Ireland and Scotland as well, who, once again, brought with them their own traditions related to Halloween. This included most of the original Samhain traditions, including bonfires, masks, and disguises, and associations with the supernatural, among others.
With the onset of globalisation and the second industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the celebratory aspects got more and more widespread, and eventually, Halloween became an incredibly popular holiday for religious and secular observances alike. It became especially popular amongst children with the emergence of traditions such as trick-or-treating, costume parties, and carving pumpkins for jack-o’lanterns.
Throughout the rest of the 20th century, Halloween and its observance spread to many other parts of the world as well, no doubt in part because of the rise of means of communication and in part because of American influence.
Halloween, as we know it today, is thus a fun festival that is observed both secularly and religiously. The Christian religious observance of All Hallows’ Eve includes paying respects to the dead and lighting candles on graves, among other things. But, as we’ve come to see, the roots of this festival are neither secular nor Christian, but rather ancient pagan.