Halloween wasn’t always the fun, carefree event it is today. The holiday originated with the Celtic people, who lived in what is now Britain and Ireland. The Celts did have some fun and even dressed up in costumes, but overall it was more of a serious occasion that involved the entire village. The tradition started, as far as we know, at least 2,000 years ago with the ancient festival known as Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”). The festivities lasted from October 31 to November 1.
Samhain was the end of the Celtic calendar year; it marked the end of the light half of the year (summer) and the beginning of the dark (winter) times. Bonfires were lit in fields and villages to ward off evil spirits and witches. The people would let their hearth fires burn out (something not usually done as it was the only source of heat in homes) and then harvest their fields during the day. At night, on Samhain, they’d gather around bonfires while Druid priests provided blessings and wards to keep ghosts and otherworldly creatures away. Each villager would take a long stick and light it from a bonfire, carrying it back to their homes to relight their hearth.
The Celts believed that this time of year allowed for the barrier between the living and the dead to be breached. Not only could deceased family members visit, but so could other, not-so-pleasant entities such as ghosts and fairies. Offerings of food were left in fields and around villages to appease spirits that might be wandering about. Honoring the dead, as this festivity did, was not a devil-worship practice as many movies and books depict.
To protect themselves from evil spirits, people wore costumes. Furs and other disguises were worn in hopes of blending in with the ghosts roaming the land so that people would not be recognized as humans and kidnapped.
As Christianity was introduced, Samhain began to change. In the 9th century, Pope Gregory declared November 1 as All Saints’ Day and November 2 as All Souls’ Day. October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve, and later to what we call it today: Halloween.
Present-day Halloween is a blend of ancient Irish and Scottish traditions, with modern adaptations. Costumes to trick evil spirits are still worn today, but in the days of the Celts, people would also dress up and go to their neighbors’ homes, singing songs for the dead. They were rewarded with cakes for their caroling efforts, whereas today’s trick-or-treaters gain their candy from “threatening” to trick neighbors rather than earning it.
Carving jack-o-lanterns was also an old tradition; it evolved into the pumpkin-carving contests we enjoy today. While many of the traditions from centuries ago have survived, the seriousness and purpose behind the holiday have changed to the spooky fun we now enjoy. This year, 3.1 million children will dress as their favorite princess, while 1.5 million will don Avengers superhero outfits. Adults join in on the fun too, and it is expected that about five million will dress up as a witch, two million will become a vampire, and 1.4 million will join the zombie apocalypse. The family pet will not be left out either as owners dress them in popular costumes as pumpkins, hot dogs, superheroes, and bumblebees.