How Halloween Became the Scariest Time of the Year
According to the National Retail Foundation, more than 171 million Americans will celebrate Halloween this year, and they will spend an estimated $8.4 billion on Halloween candy, costumes, and decorations. As a nation, we love to dress up in elaborate costumes, adorn our houses in ghosts and cobwebs, and explore all things spooky, scary, and weird for at least one night. Halloween has become a beloved holiday for many, but how did it earn its reputation as the scariest time of year?
Halloween traditions didn’t actually start out as a way to embrace the scary side of life. The earliest origins for a Halloween-like holiday go back about 2,000 years to the Celtic festival known as Samhain. The Celts lived in northern lands in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France, and they celebrated the new year on November 1. That date was selected for the new year because it coincided with the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the long cold winter. For an agrarian society, the end of the harvest was a pivotal point in the year.
The night before the new year took on special meaning too. On that date, October 31, the Celts celebrated Samhain. The Druids, who were the Celtic priests, built bonfires on Samhain for the Celts to make burnt offerings of crops and animals to the Celtic gods. During these ceremonies, the Celts would dress up in animal heads and skins, which likely qualify as the first Halloween costumes. Afterwards, the Celts would use the sacred bonfire to light the fires in their own homes.
Even though the ceremony sounds a little gruesome, it wasn’t necessarily meant to be scary. Samhain had a positive purpose in the lives of the Celts. The ceremony, the sacrifices, and the appeals to the gods were intended to protect the Celts during the harsh winter.
Evolution of the Holiday
The holiday continued to evolve over the next couple of millennia, frequently combining with other holidays and observances. First, the Romans conquered most of the land occupied by the Celts and they brought a couple of holidays with them. Feralia was a day of observance in late October when the Romans remembered the dead. The Romans also celebrated an autumn holiday honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees.
With the spread of Christianity throughout Europe in the first millennium, many pagan and secular holidays were abolished. Samhain and these other similar observances were no exception. Because the holidays were so popular though, the Catholic Church created a substitute holiday that bore a strong resemblance to the ancient traditions. Called All Souls Day or All Saints Day, the new holiday to honor the dead was scheduled for the beginning of November. On All Souls Day, participants dressed in costumes and celebrated with big bonfires – just like Samhain, but without the sacrifices.
This new celebration gave birth to the name “Halloween.” In Middle English, All Saints Day translates to Alholowmesse. The night before All Saints Day was therefore known as All-Hallows Eve. Over time, the name was shortened to Halloween.
The adoption of All Souls Day also impacted other similar traditions around the world, including the Mexican observance of Dia de los Muertos, also known as Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. Dating back hundreds of years, the holiday was traditionally observed in early summer. But when Spanish colonists arrived in the sixteenth century, they brought the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day with them. The two holidays were combined and Dia de los Muertos was moved to November 1.
The American Tradition
The Halloween tradition came to America with the European settlers. The holiday achieved popularity in the southern colonies, but was largely ignored in the more Puritanical colonies of New England. So even though authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, and Arthur Miller have promoted Colonial New England as a hotbed of spooky witches, ghosts, and headless horsemen, the New Englanders were slow to embrace the holiday that celebrated macabre traditions.
It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Halloween really started to become a national phenomenon in the United States. The rise of Halloween was driven by an influx of Irish immigrants who were forced from their homeland by the potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s. They brought their Halloween traditions with them, including the practice of going to neighbors’ houses on Halloween to ask for food – in other words, trick-or-treating.
All religious overtones to Halloween in the United States largely evaporated during the early part of the twentieth century. The holiday turned into an occasion to dress in costumes and celebrate with friends and neighbors. The tradition of trick-or-treating also became customary for children, although many children have been foregoing this tradition in recent years due to safety concerns.
The traditions of Halloween have evolved and traveled extensively over the last 2,000 years. Sometimes fun and sometimes serious, Halloween celebrations have always been a little creepy. However you choose to celebrate the holiday, have a safe and happy Halloween!
Written by Erik Siwak, Communications Manager for Bridgepoint Education
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Radford, B. (2016, October 19). History of Halloween. Retrieved October 21, 2016, from http://www.livescience.com/40596-history-of-halloween.html
Santino, J. (n.d.). The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows. Retrieved October 21, 2016, from https://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween.html