On this day in history some 2,000-plus years ago, the holiday today known as Halloween originated as a New Year’s Eve celebration among the Celtic peoples of Europe.
The Halloween we celebrate today is a mix of ancient Celtic traditions, Catholic and Roman rituals, and European folk practices blended over time. It began with the ancient Celts who considered 1 November to be New Year’s Day, which they called Samhain. The Celts believed that the night before Samhain, or 31 October, spirits, fairies, and demons trod the earth. Over time, the Celts developed elaborate rituals to protect themselves from spirits. These included sacrificing animals to the gods, gathering around bonfires, cross-dressing, and wearing masks and costumes to confuse the spirits and avoid being possessed. By wearing masks and blacking their faces, the Celts may also have been trying impersonate their dead ancestors. Inspired by ancient practices of leaving food outdoors as offerings to the gods, the costumed Celts also went from house to house, performing stunts and acts in exchange for food and drink, an ancient precursor to modern trick-or-treating.
Desiring to cast a religious light on the pagan holiday, Christian leaders later changed the name of the holiday. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV decreed 1 November All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day. The evening before All Hallows’ Day was marked with the same rituals–bonfires, costumes, “trick-or-treating,” but it slowly became known as All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween.
European immigrants, especially 19th century Irish immigrants, brought the holiday to America. Today, Halloween enjoys incredible popularity as a secular, children’s day of parades, costumes, and sweet treats. Halloween spending in recent years has topped $5.7 billion in the US, including spending on costumes, candy, decorations, and greeting cards.
And to this day, Celtic Neopagans consider the holiday a holy time and continue the ancient tradition of the Celts of making offerings to the gods and ancestors.
Credit: © Pere Sanz / Alamy
Caption: The Halloween we celebrate today is a mix of ancient Celtic traditions, Catholic and Roman rituals, and European folk practices.