What is the history and meaning of Halloween?

Halloween is upon us once again, in arguably the scariest year in decades. Where did our spooky rituals come from?

What's the origin and history of Halloween?

Halloween in the US today

  • Americans spend around $8-9 billion every year on Halloween, making it the largest commercial holiday apart from Christmas. The average individual spend for Halloween is upwards of $80.
  • The most popular five costumes for children in 2020 are princess, Spiderman, superhero, ghost, and Batman.
  • More Americans buy costumes for their pets each year. The top rating pet costumes in 2020 are pumpkin, hot dog, superhero, cat, and bumblebee.
  • One quarter of all the candy sold annually is bought for Halloween.

The beginning of Halloween

The rituals of lighting bonfires and warding off ghosts began with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (meaning “summer’s end”, pronounced “sow-win”). The celebration was originally celebrating the Celtic New Year which began on 1 November.

The Celts lived 2,000 years ago in the UK, Ireland and northern France. The Samhain festivities were based in welcoming the harvest and the “dark half of the year”, winter was often associated with death.

Crucially, Celts believed that on the night before the New Year began, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and that the ghosts of the dead came back to earth. Celebrations took place halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. The celebration also involved prayer, and sacrificing cattle.

In 8th century Italy, the Christian celebration of All Saints Day, or All Hallow’s day was born when pope Gregory III designated 1 November to honour, well, all saints. Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests that this date may have been chosen "in an effort to supplant the Pagan holiday with a Christian observance".

The evening before the main event became known as All Hallows Eve. The word “hallow” comes from Old English meaning holy or sanctified, and over time, All Hallow’s Eve on 31 October was shortened to Hallowe’en.

When North America was first founded, Halloween was barely celebrated in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant belief systems in place, but was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. But by the second half of the 19th Century, new immigrants flooded to America. The influx of these new settlers (especially the millions of Irish who came to escape the Irish potato famine) helped to popularise the national celebration of Halloween which we now enjoy.

Origins of modern Halloween traditions

Many of the traditions we still associate with Halloween in the modern world come from Samhain. To mark the occasion of Samhain, the Druids (pagan religious leaders) used to light enormous bonfires, where the community burned crops and animals as sacrifice to Celtic deities.

According to Inside History, during the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, on returning home everybody re-lit their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

All Souls’ Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils.

In the US, as the settlers’ traditions were first forming, the customs of different European ethnic groups and the American Indians came together. So a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties” where communities would come together to share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.

The parties began borrowing from European traditions and developed over time to include dressing up in costumes and going house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. Later, it became difficult to separate Halloween from its roots of ghosts, pranks and witchcraft, but there was a move to separate the two because with those traits also came vandalism, and over time (by the 1950’s) Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious connotations. Now it's more about partying.

Trick-or-treating became an effective way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration, keeping intact the element of mischief. Families could prevent tricks being played on them by providing the children of the town with small treats, and just like that the modern tradition of Halloween was born.