The History of Halloween

By, Meredith Jenkins

Halloween pumpkin

Halloween is a magical, mystical celebration of life, death and superstition. While the modern holiday brings to mind candy, costumes and parties, the origins of Halloween actually date back over 2,000 years! Over the centuries, the holiday has had some interesting and downright strange evolutions.


Celtic Origins

Halloween dates back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which was celebrated over 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and parts of northern France. The holiday was a celebration of the Celtic New Year (November 1), which marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of the dark cold winter—a time of year that was associated with death. The Celts believed that on the night before their New Year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. In fact, the Celts believed that on October 31, the night they celebrated Samhain, spirits of the deceased roamed the earth to cause trouble, damage crops and also provide inspiration for their priests, the Druids, who would make predictions about the future.

To celebrate the otherworldliness of the Samhain festival, Druids built huge bonfires where Celts gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to their gods. When surrounding the massive bonfires, the Celts adorned their bodies with animal heads and skins and made efforts to tell each other’s fortunes. After the celebration, the Celts relit their hearth fires at home with flames from the sacred bonfire, which they believed would provide protection during the coming winter. As predicted in Game of Thrones, winter was coming.

The Romans

By 43 A.D., the Romans had expanded their empire into most of the Celtic territory (if you haven’t been to Bath, England… you really need to go). While the Romans ruled the Celtic lands, two Roman festivals were combined with the Celtic festival of Samhain. The first was Feralia, which was a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day in which the Romans honored Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees.

DID YOU KNOW: The symbol of Pomona is the apple. Once this Roman holiday was incorporated into the Celtic festival of Samhain, the tradition of bobbing for apples was born.

 The Catholic Church

As Christianity spread throughout Western Europe, Roman structures, holidays and traditions were incorporated into the Christian faith. Pope Gregory III (731 – 741 A.D.) expanded the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day (created in 609 A.D. by Pope Boniface IV) to include all saints and moved the holiday from the middle of May to November 1st where the holiday was renamed All Saints Day. As Christianity spread into Celtic lands, the new faith began to blend with and overtake Celtic traditions. In 1000 A.D., in an attempt to replace the Celtic festival of the dead, the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day to honor the dead. Strangely, the church celebrated All Souls’ Day just like the Celts celebrated Samhain—with bonfires, costumes and parades. All Saints Day was also called All-hallows and the night before was called All-hallows eve, which was eventually shortened to Halloween.

Colonial America

Let’s fast forward several centuries to when the Puritans landed in Massachusetts in 1620. Remember, the Puritans were the hyper conservative Christians who were too, well, puritanical for the Church of England. Thanks to the Puritans’ rigid Protestant belief system, Halloween was not really celebrated in the northern colonies; however, the festival was widely celebrated in the southern colonies. As different Europeans migrated to the British colonies and the colonists embraced some native American traditions, a new and distinctly American version of Halloween was born. Colonial Halloween festivals featured “play parties”—public events where people celebrated the harvest, told stories of the dead and told each other’s fortunes—ghost stories and even mischief-making.

By the mid-1800s, America saw a flood of new immigrants, in particular Irish immigrants who were fleeing the great potato famine of 1846. When the Irish came to America, the celebration of Halloween became more mainstream. Americans adopted the Irish Halloween customs and started dressing up in costumes and going door-to-door asking for money, which is where the modern day tradition of “trick-or treating” originated. Harkening back to the fortune telling prowess of the Druid priests, some women believed they could see who their future husband would be by conjuring tricks with yarn, apples and mirrors.

DID YOU KNOW: Halloween as we know it can be attributed to the potato. If it weren’t for the great potato famine of 1846 in Ireland, the Irish would not have emigrated to the U.S. in such large numbers and they would not have brought their Celtic Halloween traditions with them.

Halloween Becomes Family-Friendly

By the end of the 1800s, there was a push by parents and newspapers to make Halloween a more family-friendly holiday that focused more on community gatherings rather than ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. By 1900, Halloween parties focused on games, seasonal foods and festive costumes. By the early 1900s, Halloween had lost most all of its superstitious and religious overtones and become more of a town festival. Despite the more family-friendly, secular Halloween parties that neighbors and towns held, vandalism began to break out during Halloween celebrations. By the 1950s, vandalism had become less of an issue and evolved into a holiday marketed towards children, largely due to the baby boom after WWII. With the creation of suburbs and the increased number of children, the 1950s saw a return to more family and neighborhood-centric celebrations as well as the revival of trick-or-treating. It was hoped that by providing children with small treats, adults could avoid the mischief that was historically associated with Halloween celebrations.

DID YOU KNOW: ¼ of all the candy sold in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween.


Winter was a dark and scary time for the Celts. In addition to food shortages, they believed that on Halloween ghosts would roam the earth. In order to avoid being recognized as living humans, Celts would wear masks when leaving their homes after dark on Halloween so that spirits would mistake them for fellow ghosts. People would also leave bowls of food outside their homes to prevent roaming ghosts from entering their homes.

 DID YOU KNOW: During the 1700s in Ireland, a mystical matchmaking cook would bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night hoping that it would lure her future lover to her dining room table where he would find it.


Trick-or-treating dates back to the All Souls’ Day parades in England where poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the giving family’s dead relatives. The church encouraged this practice because it was an effective way to erode the polytheistic tradition of leaving food and wine out for roaming spirits. Children eventually took up this practice, which was then called “going a-souling” and they would go door-to-door asking for ale, food and money.

DID YOU KNOW: In Scotland, fortune-tellers used to suggest that young women name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and toss each nut into the fireplace on Halloween night. The nut that burned to ashes, rather than exploding, would represent that woman’s future husband.


Avoiding crossing paths with black cats: This superstition dates back to the Middle Ages when people believed witches avoided detection by turning themselves into cats.

Avoiding walking under ladders. This superstition comes from the ancient Egyptians who believed that triangles were sacred and crossing over a triangle spelled certain doom for anyone who dared make that mistake.

 DID YOU KNOW: Americans spend $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.

No matter how you spend Halloween this year, we at Unite Virginia wish you happy, safe and ghoulish time!

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