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From Celtic traditions to trick-or-treating: Halloween's history explained

As traditions were passed down from one generation to the next, how Halloween is celebrated has dramatically changed over time. – Photo by Olivia Thiel

As we move further into fall and the final days of October are numbered, we approach Halloween, a day steeped in history and traditions. The holiday we know, love and fear today may be unrecognizable from its origin at times, but surprisingly similar at other times. It's fascinating to look back and learn how one of our favorite holidays came to be.

Thousands of years ago, the Celts living in modern Ireland and the U.K. would see warm, bountiful summer days replaced by bitter winters. Though we now have central heating and grocery stores, the beginning of winter meant frigid months and limited food supplies. Survival wasn't guaranteed, but death certainly was.

It’s no surprise that a culture so surrounded by death would be fascinated by it, as well. Believing that the veil between the realms of life and death faded at the end of the harvest season, the Celts marked this occasion with a festival called Samhain during the time we now celebrate Halloween.

Not only did they believe that the dead return, but they also believed that certain fairies and gods would, as well. To appease those gods, and ensure their own good health and fortune over the long winters, they would sacrifice livestock and crops to roaring bonfires.

Samhain was later combined with several existing festivals when the Romans conquered Celtic territory. Christian involvement meant further changes to the evolving Samhain festival. Leaders of the Catholic Church in this area wanted to make Samhain a Christian holiday, eventually creating All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, respectively.

The practices were similar in many ways, but the focus shifted away from its pagan beginnings. The carving of jack o’lanterns has origins in both the beginnings of Samhain as well as Irish, Scottish and English folktales.

Though we now carve faces into pumpkins, people then created lanterns out of turnips, beets and potatoes to ward away spirits. Children would also carry these jack o’lanterns when trick-or-treating to light their way from house to house.

The colonization of North America eventually led to an influx of Irish immigrants who brought their culture and traditions to the new world. Once again, the festival was combined with existing holidays belonging to various cultures in the colonies. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many of the traditions we know today emerged, and the holiday known as All Hallow’s Eve turned into what we know as Halloween today.

But throughout this transformation, many of the traditions rooted in the ancient Celtic festival remained. While today the average person purchases a costume from Party City, the Celts observing Samhain would don themselves in animal pelts (which likely wouldn’t go well at a modern Halloween party). Bonfires were an essential feature of the ancient festival, and are still common in today’s celebrations of Halloween, as well.

The merging of other European cultures with All Hallow’s Eve led to the introduction of trick-or-treating in the colonies. It reached popularity along with Halloween parties in the 19th century after movements among parents who demanded that Halloween should become safer and less focused on its pagan origins, which would have been unsavory to the American Christian at the time.

Children received food, money and eventually candied apples that had become popular in America. Now, packaged fun-sized candy bars are far more familiar, as parents began to worry about the safety of homemade treats.

Though the religious meanings of these traditions have been lost, and Halloween has become a commercial and secular holiday, the core aspects have remained after thousands of years of adaptations by multiple cultures. It’s worth wondering what the Celts would have thought of modern-day Halloween — would they recognize it as Samhain?

The commonalities are certainly present, and it’s a testament to the strength that traditions and cultures can have. While the world is always changing, and plenty of holidays and practices have been lost to time, it’s a guarantee that the ancient festival of Samhain will be celebrated this year and for many to come.


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