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Why do we celebrate Halloween?

Discover why we celebrate Halloween and learn about Halloween history.

Find out why we celebrate Halloween. [© Jupiter Images, 2009]
© Jupiter Images, 2009
Find out why we celebrate Halloween.

Each year on October 31st, millions of children dress up as ghosts or witches or their favorite superhero and travel from door to door, collecting treats from their neighbors. Meanwhile, adults dress up in clever costumes and spend the night at Halloween parties. But few of us, as we sort through candy or bob for apples, stop to consider just why people dress up or celebrate Halloween in the first place.

Origins of Halloween

Halloween is one of the oldest of all American holidays, but it’s rooted in a tradition even older still: the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sa-whin).

The Celts were an ancient pagan people. They lived primarily in present day Ireland and United Kingdom, though at the peak of their influence they spread into Europe. The Celts were a pantheistic people who honored their gods by performing crop and animal sacrifices.

On the Celtic calendar, November 1st marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of a new year. But it also marked something darker. The Celts believed that Samhain, the god of the dead, released the spirits of the dead into the world of the living on October 31st. To honor Samhain, as well as the end of the harvest, the Celts held enormous celebrations. They built large bonfires and wore animal costumes during these celebrations, which they believed protected them from the roaming spirits of the dead.

In an attempt to aid the conversion of the pagan Celts in the British Isles, in the seventh century the Catholic Church superimposed one of its own holidays over the pagan holiday of Samhain. This holiday is now known as All Saints Day, but at the time it was known as All Hallows Day — in Middle English alholowmesse means “All Saints Day.”

The night before All Hallows Day was known as All Hallows Even’, which was shortened to Halloween. Later, around the year 1000, the Church further added its mark on Halloween by designating November 2nd as All Souls’ Day, a holiday to commemorate the souls of all the dead. Much like Samhain, this holiday was celebrated with bonfires and costumes.

Halloween and Trick-or-Treating
Despite the fact that October 31st now marked a Christian holiday, many of the Celtic traditions from the festival of Samhain lingered, especially in Ireland and Britain. One of these was the practice of dressing up in costume on Halloween night. This, coupled with another old British practice, may have led to trick-or-treating as we know it today.

Some scholars believe that modern-day trick-or-treating evolved from the medieval practice of going “a-souling.” In medieval times, many people still labored under the pagan belief that the spirits of the dead would return to the land of the living during Halloween. To prevent these spirits from entering their houses, people would leave wine and food outside of their front door.

The Church, which didn’t particularly approve of pagan customs, began promoting the practice of “souling,” in which people would go door-to-door asking for “soul cakes” — small treats in exchange for promises of prayers for the dead.

Other scholars suggest that trick-or-treating also draws its origin from the medieval custom of “mumming,” in which people dressed in costumes went from door to door, trading songs or skits for food and drink. And in Ireland, a custom known as “Halloween rhyming” involves children going from door to door performing rhymes in exchange for money.

Halloween and the Jack o’ Lantern
Perhaps not surprisingly, the jack o’ lantern also has its roots in Irish and British tradition. Though some scholars point to the Celtic bonfires as precursors to modern-day jack o’ lanterns, many folklorists point to an Irish folk tale as the jack o’ lantern’s progenitor.

The folktale, known as “Stingy Jack,” tells the story of an Irish villager named Jack who was known not just for his stinginess but for his overall bad behavior. Twice the Devil came to take Jack’s soul in punishment for his earthly behavior, and twice Jack tricked the Devil into promising he would not return for his soul ever again. When Jack died, he was refused entrance into heaven. But when Jack reached the gates of hell, the Devil reminded Jack of his promise and sent him away with a single piece of burning coal as a lamp. Jack made a makeshift lantern out of the coal by putting it into a hollowed-out turnip, and was doomed to eternity wandering the Earth with this dismal light, earning the nickname “Jack of the Lantern.”

During Halloween the Irish began making their own version of Jack’s lantern, hollowing out potatoes and turnips in which to put their candles. Pumpkins, however, are native to North America and would have been unknown to British and Irish villagers centuries ago. The version we know today using pumpkins only started much later, when the tradition of Halloween spread across the Atlantic.

Halloween Today

But how did Halloween become such a popular tradition in America? Historians suggest that the great Irish potato famine of the 1840s had a lot to do with it. From 1845 to 1849, blight on the potato crops of Ireland forced many to flee their homeland. A large number of them moved across the Atlantic to the United States, bringing with them their customs and traditions, including Halloween.

As the decades passed, the Halloween tradition became more and more of a secular holiday, leaving many of the religious meanings and overtones behind. In fact, nowadays most Americans aren’t even aware of the religious history behind the holiday, and very few celebrate “All Saints Day” or “All Souls’ Day.”

In other parts of the world this isn’t necessarily the case. In Ireland, many of the earliest pagan traditions, such as lighting bonfires, still exist. And in Mexico, Spain and Latin America, the three-day festival to honor saints and souls is still observed. In these countries, November 2nd is known as El Dia de los Muertos — The Day of the Dead. Beginning October 31st, people prepare altars and decorate the gravesites of family members in preparation for their deceased relatives return to the living.

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