The ancient Celtics celebrated their new year on November 1. They called this Samhain (pronounced sow-in) and it marked the end of the harvest season for Celtic farmers. They believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead were more undefined so to provide the best chance of surviving a harsh winter, people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off the ghosts and evil spirits that would damage crops.
During the celebration, the Celts burned crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities and typically wore costumes consisting of animal heads and skin. They attempted to tell each other’s fortunes as they believed that the blurred lines between the living and the dead made it easier to make predictions about the future, often a source of comfort during a long and dark winter.
Christianity was spreading like wildfire and eventually creeped into Celtic lands. By 1000 A.D., the church made November 2nd “All Souls’ Day” to honor the dead. Many today believe that this was done by the church to replace the Celtic festival of the dead, which they perceived as paganistic, with a church-sanctioned holiday.
Derived from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day, Halloween was originally called All-hallows or All-hallowmas. The night before began to be called All-Hallows Eve which eventually became Halloween.
Colonial New England did not take to the celebration of Halloween because of their rigid Protestant belief systems but as their beliefs meshed with the customs of the American Indians, public events held to celebrate the harvest initiated an American Halloween. Colonial Halloween festivities featured the telling of ghost stories, dancing, singing and mischief-making of all kinds.
The European and Celtic tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween never truly faded away. To avoid being recognized by ghosts , people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. They would also place bowls of food outside their doors in the hope that it would prevent ghosts from attempting to enter their homes. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
With time, Halloween began to focused less on ghosts and witchcraft and more on games, foods of the season and costumes. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones.
Today, Halloween is mostly about candy, parties and parents trying hard to limit their children’s sugar intake. Apparently, the evil spirits of the season never truly left. They’ve just turned into diabetes.