The Origins of Halloween

Every year people around the world dress up as ghosts, witches, characters out of nightmares, horror movies or popular culture for this one night. Today, it is a billion dollar industry. But exactly how did it get here?

The word “Halloween” comes from the words ‘hallow’ which means holy person and ‘een’, a contraction of eve, derived from All Hallows’ Eve and means “hallowed evening.” The history of Halloween dates back to a festival called Samhain in the time of the ancient Celtic pagans, a three day fire festival that celebrated death and rebirth. 

The Celts who lived in what is now Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the UK and in parts of northern Europe based their calendar on the wheel of a year. Essentially divided into two halves: the light and the dark. When one gave way to the other, this transition was marked by a fire festival. The word Samhain translates from old Irish to ‘Summer’s end’. Thie festival celebrated the dead, more so, it paid homage to loved ones who had passed away recently, essentially an invitation for their spirits to rejoin the living. Many of their original rituals have been lost but what we do know of their holiday traditions from Celtic folklore and ancient Roman historians is that they were intended to connect them to spirits. Costumes, usually made from animal hide to hide them from unfriendly or unwanted spirits, were one of the traditions. Feasting and making lanterns from hollowed out gourds (most likely turnips, which were readily available in Ireland at the time) were others that we know of. Sacrifices of crops, fruit or animals were made during this time as an offering to the spirits. 

The History of the Lancashire Witches. London(_)_ ca. 1785. image courtesy University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library

It seems that human nature doesn’t change so often as pranks or tricks were played on each other and blamed on mischievous spirits.

As a result of the Roman invasion with most of the Celtic land being conquered by Rome in 43 CE, the spread of Christianity and Catholicism would force pagan Celtic traditions to evolve or be completely repressed. In part, many Celtic traditions and popular pagan practices were reframed to fit within a Christian narrative as a way of converting people with greater comfort and ease. Samhain would evolve into All Saints Day, which is also referred to as All Hallows Day, as mentioned above. It was now intended to be a day to celebrate the Christian saints and martyrs. Essentially, instead of honouring pagan godsend mischievous spirits, they now celebrated Christian figures. While the sacrifices were replaced by food offerings to the poor, the tricks and pranks continued. But instead, they were now attributed to the spirits of the saints. Halloween evolved as a more secular version of All Hallow’s Eve, and eventually it would become more popular and common practice than All Saints Day. While Halloween has its origins in the British Isles, there’s a great disparity in its popularity in former British colonies. The Puritans who came to colonise America were Protestant and did not celebrate holidays of the Catholic Church, as they were believed to lead to idolatry. In the early days of the American colonies, celebrations of Halloween were mostly forbidden as they were deemed too pagan or too Catholic by the Protestant colonisers. Though elements of it began to be incorporated into secular harvest related events in the 1800s. The mid 19th century saw a large influx of immigrants entering the country, especially Irish immigrants who were greatly impacted by the potato famine in their home country. With these people came Halloween customs, and began to pave the way for this holiday. 

In keeping with the mischief, children would dress in costumes and be given money or fruit for artistic offerings like poetry, songs or even jokes instead of prayers. 

By the late 19th century, children were playing seemingly innocuous pranks in their small local communities. Adults would soon find incentive to dissuade children from playing pranks. Enter trick or treating. 

The 20th century would finally see the commercialisation of Halloween. By the 1920s and 30s, Halloween merchandise evolved to pre-made costumes for both children and adults. After World War Two in the 1950s, the economic boom has candy manufacturers getting on the Halloween bandwagon. Movies and TV are also largely responsible for the proliferation of Halloween as a mass market holiday. Cinemas in the 1950s saw a rise in horror films, and the television industry in the 1960s began running Halloween specials during the season. 

By 2015, the National Retail Federation in America predicted spending on Halloween could reach $6.9 billion. 

Thanks to American popular culture, Halloween is a holiday now recognised globally. Whether we practice it or not, it surely is a fun and spooky night of the year that has stood the test of time!

Artist, critic and a self proclaimed historian. I write about the this and thats, odds and ends, and etceteras of the art world.

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