The History of Halloween – Robert Volpe


It’s that time of year again. Kids will be dressing up as ghosts, princesses, or their favorite super hero and go door to door trick or treating for goodies.

The origins of Halloween go back 2,000 years, but have evolved over time to what we celebrate today.

According to

“Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, lived in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.”

“To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.”

Halloween Comes to America

As you might expect, Halloween was not embraced fondly by New England Puritans of early America.


“Halloween was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.”

Modern Day American Halloween

“The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.”
“The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter.”
Halloween used to be pretty much a kids day, but in recent years adults have put their own spin on Halloween. Grown ups have co-opted this day as a great day to cut loose, roll play, and party. There are private parties, adults only haunted houses in some cities, and almost every bar has some kind of Halloween themed thing going on, including special drinks and costume contests.
According to DDB Worldwide, a worldwide marketing communications network, “Some 13% of Americans ages 18-44 say Halloween is their favorite holiday. Many companies allow, and even encourage employees to wear costumes. Six million adults plan to dress as a witch this year, and 3.2 million will dress as vampires, say NRF and BIGInsight. One million will dress as some type of athlete, and 767,000 will wear a politically-inspired costume.”
Happy Halloween to all, both young and old, and have a spectacularly spooky Halloween.