Where Does Halloween Come From?

Halloween is a perfect example of how global cultural contributions can affect modern day festivals and celebrations. While Halloween has become one of the largest commercial holidays in the US its roots extend from a variety of cultures that span through time.

History shows that decorated or carved gourds date back to Ancient Africa. This type of carving would later be used on turnips in Scotland during the middle ages. These turnips would be lit up and placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. In the 8th-5th century BC, Celts also believed you could ward off evil spirits by wearing masks. Both these elements are represented in our Halloween celebration today.


Aside from the superstitious aspects of the holiday there have also been a variety of festivals and religious rituals throughout history that have contributed as well. The Celtic celebration of Samhain (Sow-in) is an annual festival celebrated during the harvest season and can found throughout Celtic mythology. This festival is still celebrated today. Amongst the pagan rituals performed during this festival they would also dress up in costume to perform folk plays, comedic improv, skits, etc. This was called mumming and guising. In some cases these performances were occurring door to door and in exchange for food. Sound familiar?

When the Romans conquered much of the Celtic territory in 43 AD the Samhain festival was combined with two Roman festivals; Feralia, that commemorated the passing of the dead, and Pamona, a day that honored the goddess of fruit and trees. Our modern day tradition of & "bobbing for apples" came from this Roman festival that honored Pamona.

The Roman Catholic church has played a part in Halloween as well. During the 8th century Pope Gregory III implemented "All Saints Day", an annual celebration on November 1st to honor all Saints and Martyrs. The decision for this holiday in particular and the date were assigned specifically to squash or limit the participation in fall festivals with pagan roots. All Saints Day participants were also encouraged to dress up as the Saints and Martyrs they were honoring. However, in the end, rather than serving as a diversion and succeeding in its attempt to extinguish these pagan festivals, it served as the glue that forever bound the two separate celebrations together and even lent it a name.

The term Halloween in part, extends from the Roman Catholic celebration of Hallowmas, a term used to describe three celebrations: The Eve of All Saints Day on October 31st, All Saints Day on November 1st, and All Souls Day (a day to honor the dead) on November 2nd. In addition to Hallowmas we get Halloween from the word Hallowe'en, which means Hallow Evening. In the end, while the commercialized celebration of Halloween is rather hollow and lacking in substance its symbols and events extend primarily from pagan roots, while its name comes from the Roman Catholic Church.

As for our modern day celebration; it was not until 1866 that the pumpkin Jack-O- Lantern was associated with Halloween, or until 1934 that we coined the term, "trick-or- treat". These elements, along with children going door to door for candy were popularized in America after the mass migration of Irish born natives to the states during the potato famine in 1846. Since that time Halloween has grown to be one of the most popular and widely celebrated holidays in North America.

Over the last decade the number of Americans participating in Halloween has doubled and the amount of money spent in 2016 is expected to reach 7 billion dollars. While our growth here in the US is notable it is not even close to the explosive growth of Halloween in Canada! Ten years ago the popularity of Halloween in Canada was lagging behind the US but in the past three years has taken a huge turn! While about 50% of Americans are expected to celebrate Halloween this year, 68% of Canadians will!

In the end, children and families within the US, Canada, The Republic of Ireland, The United Kingdom, Puerto Rico, and some of Northern and Central Mexico are sure to be dressing in costume and trick-or-treating on October 31st . Many American transplants to other regions will also be celebrating, as will some families in France. French families have adopted this "American Holiday" and it is continuing to grow in popularity there.

In addition to these regions some form of Halloween or Hollowmas will be celebrated in various regions throughout the world. Families in Austria, Czechoslovakia, China, Hong Kong, Korea, Mexico, Latin America, and Spain will be making food, drink, and/or gift offerings on All Hallows Eve to their ancestors who have since passed. In some cases the offerings are given in hopes of appeasing any anger on the part of the ghosts returning. Similarly, in Germany families will put away their kitchen knives in order to protect those living or dead from harm they could inflict on each other. Some of these cultures will set up chairs fire side to welcome the deceased back home and some will burn money and pictures in expectation of their ashes and smoke returning to the spirit of their loved one's. Regardless of what customs various cultures have adopted the motivation is the same.

Throughout history and across the world humanity has always found a way to create objects and rituals that express the joy of life and sadness of death. We have all been provided opportunities to conjure up our own superstitions, believe in those that already exist, or attempt to extinguish those that you don't believe. We are all consistently a part of culture and a party to its transformative powers. While there are many examples that show us what cultural collaboration really looks like, Halloween may be the most popular, most tangible, and most understandable here in the United States.