Chris has an MA in English Lit and has worked as an editor for numerous publications. He writes primarily on literary and historical topics.
What Is Halloween?
In the United States, Halloween is a commercial holiday that takes place on October 31st. On this holiday, people of all ages dress up as spirits, the dead, and various characters from popular culture and history. Costumes vary from ghosts to hotdogs, sexy nurses to Superman.
Children often engage in "trick-or-treating," which involves going door-to-door and asking residents for candy. Teenagers might throw parties or pull pranks around their neighborhoods, such as "toilet papering." Adults will host gatherings with friends and acquaintances, playing games, drinking, and eating desserts.
But barely anyone engaging in these activities has any idea why they're doing so. Parents simply prepare their children to trick-or-treat and lead them around the neighborhood. They just replicate what their parents did with them when they were children. People buy costumes and throw parties because it's fun and familiar.
But how did Halloween come about? What is the Halloween origin story? And how did it make its way over to America? This article answers these questions in detail!
What Are the Origins of Halloween?
The Halloween holiday celebrated today in the United States is actually a medley of numerous traditions and events: the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Roman festival of Pomona, the customs of the early Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, and Guy Fawkes Day. In other words, American Halloween began as a pagan celebration and was later adopted and mixed with Catholic traditions and an important English political event. Let's see exactly what happened.
The Importance of Summer and Winter Solstice
Celtic peoples inhabited the United Kingdom, Ireland, northern France, and Brittany long before the birth of Christ. These pagan peoples organized their lives around hunting, herding, and seasonal events. The two most important seasonal events were the beginning of summer and winter because these transitions determined whether herds needed to be sheltered or brought to pasture.
To put it another way, the seasonal transitions to summer and winter determined how Celtic peoples cared for one of their key food sources and thus were important to their very survival.
What Is Samhain?
At the beginning of the winter, due to limited space, only the best of the herd could be brought into shelter; the rest would be slaughtered. This butchering of livestock was accompanied by celebrations and feasting and was dedicated to Samhain, the Celtic Lord of the Dead.
The festival of Samhain (pronounced "sah-win") was a hugely important festival for the Celtic people. It was more than a simple party signaling the onset of winter, where they gorged themselves on excess meat from the portion of the herd they had to slaughter.
During the festival, ancient burial mounds—seen as portals to the Otherworld (where gods and the dead lived)—were opened. This created a link between living Celts, their ancestors, and the supernatural world. The Celts believed that ancient ghosts and demons rose from the grave on the eve of Samhain and wandered the countryside. These beings would run amok, spoiling crops and spooking homes. This night of special access to the Otherworld made Druids (Celtic priests) prize the eve of Samhain. This is because it provided an unprecedented moment for witchcraft, divination, and augury.
It was also believed that on Samhain, the Lord of the Dead gathered troops of lost souls together for resentencing. The Celts gave offerings to Samhain in the hope that this would temper his judgment. Samhain's satisfaction might improve their deceased loved ones’ chances of a good sentence. People also put out food and wine to strengthen their ancestors' souls on their journey to and from the Otherworld.
To avoid evil spirits released on the eve of Samhain, Celts would disguise themselves as ghouls. The hope was that the spirits would mistake them for one of their own and pass them by. Members of communities also donned masks and paraded through villages to trick spirits and lead them away from towns. Sometimes Celts would even offer desserts to spirits in exchange for their departure.
Another important aspect of Samhain was fire. Celts lit hearth fires in their homes while they went out to gather the harvests and allowed them to burn out while they labored. When the harvest was finished, Druids and Samhain celebrants lit a great communal fire with a wheel that used friction to light kindling and wood. Celts carried flames from the great blaze back to their homes to relight their hearth fires.
What Is the Roman Festival of Pomona?
The Roman goddess Pomona was a woodland nymph deity of orchards and harvest. The name Pomona comes from the Latin pomum, which means "fruit." The ancient Romans celebrated the goddess on November 1st with feasts featuring nuts and orchard fruits, such as apples and grapes.
In myth, Pomona was the love object of various rustic divinities, all of whom she detested. One of her admirers happened to be the god of seasons and change, Vertumnus, who had the ability to alter his form at any time. He disguised himself first as a plowman, next as a fisherman, and again as a reaper, but none of these disguises worked. Finally, he took the form of an old woman and whispered a prophecy to Pomona about his love for her:
...there is one—listen to an old woman who loves you more than you know—you would do well not to reject Vertumnus. You are his first love and his last. And he, too, cares for the orchard and the garden. He could work by your side. (Hamilton, 1986, p. 286)
Vertumnus then revealed himself, and Pomona fell instantly in love with him.
Romans celebrated the festival of Pomona on November 1st after the year's harvest had been stored for winter. By the first century A.D., Roman colonization had made an intermingling of Celtic and Roman life commonplace. Both peoples had begun inhabiting small villages together across Europe and the British Isles. The festival of Pomona and Samhain coincided with one another on the calendar. This, plus the proximity of Roman and Celtic daily life, led to a natural synthesis between the two celebrations.
The influence of the Roman orchard harvest celebration persists today in the iconography and enjoyment of apples on Halloween. The Druidic belief that Samhain was a time of increased traffic between the lands of the dead and the living also merged with the festival of Pomona, as evidenced by the many historical Halloween divination games across the British Isles that use apples and nuts to predict one's future spouse (Bannatyne, 2000, pp. 90-96).
In the first century A.D., the hybrid proto-Halloween of the Romans and Celts came in direct contact with Christianity. This prompted a union of pagan traditions with the early Catholic church.
Customs of the Early Catholic Church
Christianity, which began as a persecuted, fringe belief system, exploded into a world religion between the first and fourth centuries. The Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius legalized Christianity across the Empire in 313; by the end of the fourth century, there were 30 million adherents of the early Catholic church.
The Success of Early Christianity
Christianity succeeded, at least in part, because it created a need almost no one knew they had. The pagan traditions had focused on gods and goddesses that were present in everyday life, intimately bound to nature and human wellbeing. Pagans worshipped and sacrificed to deities based on their needs. If they needed rain for their crops, they made offerings to weather gods. If they wanted to save a seriously ill loved one, they sacrificed to a healing deity.
What Christianity achieved was bigger than a move from pantheism to monotheism: it created a religious focus on eternity. The early Christians created a need for salvation because they practiced their religion to escape eternal torment and receive everlasting reward. They argued that only they could provide salvation, and at the close of the fourth century, they'd succeeded in converting many millions of pagans.
The success of early Christianity can also be partly attributed to the approach Church leaders took regarding the pagans' rituals and way of life. They did not attempt any wholesale stamping out of such rituals and traditions; instead, they assimilated pagan rites into Christian tradition. This gradual process of transition slowly integrated the festivals of Samhain and Pomona into the All Saints' and All Souls' feasts.
What Is All Saints' Day?
Originally, All Saints' Day took place on May 13th and was a celebration memorializing early Christians who died for their faith without recognition. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved the celebration to November 1st, the day after Samhain and the day of Pomona's festival. It was no coincidence that Gregory III chose this date, as the Church was still attempting to assimilate pagan celebrations. Originally a holiday for St. Mary and the Martyrs, Pope Gregory IV extended the day to incorporate all saints, a move that helped the holiday reach every church under Roman rule.
The Church encouraged "soul cake" baking as a replacement for pagan food and wine offerings to gods. Soul cakes were given to the poor, who, in exchange, promised to pray for the donor's deceased loved ones. As this practice grew in popularity, choruses of young men began singing "souling" songs door-to-door. Instead of asking for cakes, they hoped for ale and money.
Another replacement ritual the Church promoted was the All Saints' masquerade. Across Europe and the British Isles, churches displayed their patron saints' relics. Poor churches, however, had no relics to show off. Instead, the churchgoers would participate in a masquerade procession dressed as saints, angels, and devils. The Church used this as a new, acceptable version of the pagan parades that led spirits out of town.
What Is All Souls' Day?
All Souls' Day originated in the ninth century when the liturgist Amalarius of Metz declared it as a special day for the dead. It was first officially requested to be made a regular Church holiday in 993 by Saint Odilo of Cluny. His argument was based on a reading from 2 Maccabees, an apocryphal scripture. This is part of official Church history, and the folk story is, unsurprisingly, a bit different.
In folk legend, a shipwrecked pilgrim returning from a religious journey met a hermit. The hermit claimed to have witnessed the agonized groans of souls coming from a flame-engulfed gorge. The pilgrim trekked onward to Cluny, where he told Saint Odilo what the hermit said. Odilo then decided to create All Souls' Day as a day to feast and pray for these tormented dead. He chose November 2nd, as it followed All Saints' Day and reinforced the idea of a "communion of saints." In 1000, Pope Sylvester II approved the holiday, and its official observance spread throughout the medieval world.
The Church's Ironic (and Enduring) Influence
Through the ironic influence of the early Catholic Church, Halloween was gradually formed into the holiday we now have today. They essentially gave divine sanction to the ancient custom of remembering the dead on the evening of October 31st. They even gave Halloween its name: All Saints' Day was originally known as All Hallows, which made the previous night All Hallows' Eve. All Hallows' Eve eventually became Hallowe'en, which then finally transformed into Halloween.
With the All Souls' Day celebrations, the Church helped give new life and credence to the old pagan customs of masquerades and parades. Also, with the practice of soul cake baking and souling songs, the Church arguably laid the foundation for modern-day trick-or-treating.
The Protestant Reformation
On Halloween 1517, the German professor of theology Martin Luther mailed his famous "95 Theses" to the Archbishop of Mainz. This event initiated a rupture within the Catholic Church, creating the Protestant sect of Christianity. Luther's document argued for a renunciation of the pope's authority and the Church's symbols and focused intently on an individual relationship with God.
Many Catholic customs and observances were discarded by the Protestants, including the All Saints' and All Souls' celebrations. Without these events, there was no longer any vital link back to the mergers of the festivals of Samhain and Pomona and the early Catholic Church. However, the new and sustained animosity between Catholics and Protestants gave birth to a new, annual Protestant autumn festival—Guy Fawkes Day.
What Is Guy Fawkes Day?
Almost a century after Luther's "95 theses" and the Protestant separation from the Church, English co-conspirators—Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, and Guy Fawkes among them—initiated "the gunpowder plot" on November 5, 1605. The goal of the plot was to blow up the House of Lords when Parliament convened that day, kill King James I, and reinstate a Catholic monarchy in England. Catesby, Winter, and Fawke's act of treason was fueled by decades of Catholic persecution under Elizabeth Tudor (reigned 1558-1603).
The plan fell apart just before Fawkes was able to ignite his mass of gunpowder in Parliament's cellar. He and his co-conspirators were all arrested and executed. Two months later, Parliament declared November 5th a national day of celebration and thanksgiving.
The nearness of Guy Fawkes Day to All Hallows' Eve encouraged a crossing over of traditions. One of the most iconic carry-overs was the great bonfire of Samhain, which the English used to burn effigies of Fawkes. Participants also fashioned repulsive faces into hollowed-out turnips that they carried as lanterns. This practice harkened back to the medieval British Isles' practice of placing candle-lit turnip lanterns on gateposts to ward off evil spirits on All Hallows' Eve.
Across northern England, the eve of Guy Fawkes Day evolved into a night of mischief when people indulged in pranks, horseplay, and practical jokes. As a carry-over from the soul cakes and souling choruses of All Saints' Day, young men would dress in costume and beg for coal to use for burning their Fawkes effigies.
Halloween Comes to America
The first permanent colony the British established in North America was at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, just two years after the gunpowder plot's failed destruction of Protestant British Parliament. The Catholic Church's All Hallows' celebrations, Guy Fawkes Day *with its absorption of the All Hallows' traditions), and the ancient pagan customs of the British Isles—all wove their way into the fabric of colonial America. Indeed, the bonfires, pranks, masquerades, lanterns, and proto-trick-or-treating were all imported into the New World.
The population of this "melting pot" by no means possessed a pool of shared beliefs and traditions—such things varied widely by geographic location. For instance, German and Swiss immigrants were major influences in Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was Puritan to the bone, and Africans Blacks and Anglicans heavily contributed to the culture of the southern colonies. All these peoples, however, carried over vital elements from their countries of origin that helped contribute to unique autumn celebrations.
Amid this hodgepodge of colonial cultures, the foundations of American Halloween as we know it today were laid in the colony of Virginia.
American Halloween Was Born in Virginia
Early Virginia was a mixture of English, Polish, German, French, and Scottish peoples, as well as a large population of African Blacks. While this was a colorful patchwork of cultures and nationalities, Virginia remained primarily English economically, socially, and religiously. In the early 17th century, this meant that Virginians generally followed the Anglican faith.
Folk Tradition of All Saints' Day
The Church of England was born out of the 16th-century feud between Henry VIII and the papacy. It was a Protestant church that retained many pillars of Catholicism; however, under Elizabeth I, a greater blending of Protestantism and Catholicism took place. The All Saints' and All Souls' celebrations were demoted from being true religious holidays, but it is likely that the English continued on with them as folk traditions. The church was even lenient enough to give official approval to say prayers for the dead on All Saints' Day.
American Indulgence in the Occult
The atmosphere of early colonial Virginia also included active (and widespread) indulgence in folk magic, spirits, and the occult, including astrology, divination, and palmistry. In times of need, the Virginia Anglicans were as willing to consult occult sources as they were the Christian God. Although this may sound odd to modern ears, this state of affairs was actually a carry-over from England's 17th-century occult obsessions.
Occultism was something of a fad in 17th-century England, and all rungs of society frequented magical practitioners. For instance, the English astrologist William Lilly gave 5-6 consultations daily for a period of nearly 15 years (Butler, 1949, p. 317). The atmosphere of the period was one in which Christianity and occultism were not so clearly separated, and the two traditions blurred into one another. The result was that the early colonialists of Virginia practiced magic and indulged in it; it was a part of everyday life.
The liveliness of magical practice in colonial Virginia, along with the Anglican folk tradition of All Sants' Day, were critical to the survival of Halloween into the modern day. Occult folk elements, such as belief in spirits, witches, divination, and small-scale sorcery, and the communal elements of Halloween were very familiar to the early Virginians. They also carried over the Old World tradition of autumnal celebrations of harvests in the form of fairs that included drinking, dancing, contests, and fortune-telling.
American Guy Fawkes Day
The Virginian Anglicans had no qualms about having a good time, unlike other English Protestant sects that immigrated to America (Quakers, for example, restricted their alcohol consumption and did not sing outside of spontaneous religious worship). It's therefore unlikely they had any problem with the American version of Guy Fawkes Day that many of their neighbors—the Scottish, French, and Germans—participated in.
America's New Holiday
The mixture of All Saints' Day's persistence as a folk tradition, the autumn harvest fairs, and the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day fashioned Virginia into the breeding ground of modern American Halloween. By the time the American Revolution rolled around, an exuberant and romantic autumn celebration of the spirit world had begun to take root in the lives of the American people.
Sources and Further Reading
Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American History, an American Holiday. Pelican, 2000.
Butler, John. "Magic, Astrology and the Early American Religious Heritage, 1600-1760." American Historical Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, 1979, pp. 317-346. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.317.
Kelley, Ruth Edna. The Book of Hallowe'en. Lothrop, Lee & Shephard, 1919.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New American Library, 1986.