Halloween has been created through a jumble of traditions coming from the ancient Celts, the Romans, Catholic religious practices, and European folk traditions. These traditions date back to the earliest times.
Early History of Halloween
Two thousand years ago, the ancient Celts celebrated the end of the summer, as well the end of the year on November 1st. The night before, October 31st, was called Samhain. During Samhain, the Celts believed the dead could walk the Earth. Their priests, called Druids, attempted to communicate with the dead. This offered a sense of comfort to the people. To celebrate the holiday, the Celts built bonfires, wore costumes consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell fortunes.
When the Romans conquered the Celts, many of the Celts’ practices were combined with the Roman ones. Samhain was no exception. It was combined with two Roman festivals. On festival, Feralia, was a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second festival honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Many historians believe this is where the tradition of bobbing for apples originated.
Eventually, Christianity spread its influence to the Celts. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st as All Saints’ Day to honor dead martyrs and saints. Historians believe he tried to replace Samhain with something similar but church sanctioned. In A.D. 1000, the Church designated November 2nd as All Souls’ Day, a day to remember everyone who died, not just the saints. It was celebrated similar to Samhain with bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as angels, saints, and devils.
Halloween in Early America
Halloween was not celebrated much in the northern colonies because of strict Protestant belief systems. It was much more common in Maryland and the colonies south of it. As different European ethnic groups and Native American traditions meshed, Halloween became what we know today.
The first celebrations in the colonies were “play parties” where neighbors gathered to celebrate the harvest and share stories of tell dead, tell fortunes, dance and sing. These festivities included ghost stories and mischief making. Although harvest parties were common, Halloween was not celebrated as a holiday until the nineteenth century.
In the late 1800’s, Halloween became less of a spiritual holiday and became more of a secular one celebrated by children.
Trick-or-Treating on Halloween
Like Halloween itself, Trick-or-treating has its roots in many different places. One of those sources was an old Irish peasant custom of going door to door to collect money, eggs, cheese, nuts, butter, apples, and other things for the festival of St. Columb Kill.
Trick-or-treating also has its roots in the custom of “souling” from the Middle Ages. Souling took place on All Souls’ Day, November 2nd. This event, approved by the Catholic Church, was devised so beggars could door to door and ask for “soul cakes”, made of square pieces of bread and currants, in exchange for prayers. The more soul cakes the beggars received, the more prayers they promised to say on behalf of dead relatives.
Trick-or-Treating didn’t begin in the United States until the early part of the 20th century. In the 1930’s, it made its way into newspapers and magazines. Throughout the 1940’s children’s books and television shows made it more popular. However, trick-or-treating really caught fire in 1952 when Walt Disney debuted his cartoon, Trick or Treat.
Halloween is now the second most commercial holiday, after Christmas. An estimated $2 billion dollars worth of candy is bought each year. Although it has its roots in traditions thousands of years old, the way Halloween has been celebrated has changed throughout the years.