Before the Candy Corn: A Brief History of Halloween

Halloween started as a Celtic new year's celebration called "Samhain."

Look no further if you are in need of a refresher course on the roots of Halloween. Strollerderby’s got you covered, with the help of History-of-Halloween.Net.

Halloween started over 2,000 years ago on the British Isles as a Celtic celebration of their new year on November 1st. The day was known as Samhain (pronounced Sa-wain) and was celebrated on the night of October 31st by burning crops and sacrificing animals. The Celts associated this time of year with death as the bounty of the harvest season ended and the months of winter started in earnest — and if you’ve experienced a winter in England or Ireland, you would not disagree with their assessment.

The Celts, Wiccans, and their Druid priests believed that the night before Samhain was a time when spirits could return from the dead to make trouble for the living. Another familiar element was the practice of setting out plates of food (now candy) to appease the spirits and to keep them out of their homes.

Celtic beggars may have started our “trick-or-treat” tradition by threatening home-owners with evil spirits if they didn’t give them food. Images of costumed children menacing kind elderly people with zombie retribution if they aren’t given candy spring to mind. Yikes!

That is one creepy carved turnip.

The Celts also started our tradition of carving pumpkins, but back then they used turnips. Martha Stewart has some really excellent carved turnip ideas out there, but the turnips of those days may have looked more like the one pictured to the right. Ick.

When the Romans invaded England and set up shop for the next 400 years, they fused the Samhain celebration with two of their own festivals. One was called Feralia and commemorated the passing of the dead and the other celebrated the goddess Pomona, who was represented by an apple — and bobbing for apples was born.

The spread of Christianity eventually prompted Pope Boniface IV to try and quell the pagan fever of the holiday by naming November 1st as “All Sain’s Day,” to honor the saints and martyrs of the church. It was celebrated with bonfires, parades, and costumed revelers in the form of angels, saints, and devils. All Saint’s Day in Middle English translates to: All-Hallows. Which became All-Hallow’s Eve, which became Halloween.


We’ve got to the name, but the rest of the story is that when the holiday traveled from Europe to the more uptight, er, inflexible Protestant United States, the celebration got toned down considerably. But thankfully, when the Irish fled the potato famine in Ireland, they brought the traditions of the British Isles back to USA in more tolerant times — dressing in costumes, going door to door asking for food and money, playing pranks and spreading the superstitions of their homeland to Americans.

By the late 1800’s, the holiday was almost completely Americanized and became more about community-centered parties and parades than about superstitions and witch-craft. Despite the cleaning up of the holiday, though, the superstitions live on — making Halloween a fun evening of pseudo-frights and giving us a chance to experience a piece of our history when everyday occurrences couldn’t always be divided neatly into “fact” or “fiction” columns, but when anything from an illness or food spoiling could be blamed on evil spirits or the witch down the lane.

Have fun tonight, watch out for black cats crossing your path, and be safe!!

Jack-O-Lantern Photo Courtesy: ©Jim Crotty —
Carved Turnip Photo Courtesy:

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Article Posted 5 years Ago

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