On October 31 of every year, Halloween is celebrated by many around the world. The popular holiday’s origins date back to Samhain, an ancient festival celebrated by the Celts. According to an article by The History Channel, the Celts lived two thousand years ago in Europe and celebrated their new year on November 1. Since the day signified the beginning of winter—a “time of year that was often associated with human death”—the Celts believed that the boundary between the living and dead was blurred on the night before. On Samhain, the Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to Earth. Druids, Celtic priests, started large bonfires where people burnt crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic deities.
When the Roman Empire conquered the Celtic territory, they combined two Roman festivals with Samhain. One of the festivals was Feralia, a day when Romans honoured the passing of the dead. The other festival honoured Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol is the apple which most likely gave rise to the apple bobbing tradition celebrated on Halloween today.
When Christianity spread into the Celtic territory, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honour the dead. It is “widely believed that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, church-sanctioned holiday.” The day was also called All-hallows and the night before All-Hallows Eve from which the word Halloween is derived from.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the massive wave of Irish and Scottish immigration into Canada in the latter half of the nineteenth century introduced Halloween customs such as “wearing disguises to ward off ghosts and offering food to appease malevolent spirits” to Canada. The first instance of dressing up was recorded in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1898 while the phrase ‘trick or treat’ was introduced in 1927 in Lethbridge, Alberta. In the 1990s, Halloween “became increasingly popular with adults” and soon became the “second most commercially successful holiday behind Christmas.”
The modern-day Halloween can be identified by the pumpkin carvings, costumes, and trick-or-treating practices prevalent today. The tradition of pumpkin carving was brought to Canada by Scottish and Irish immigrants. The term ‘jack-o’-lantern’ is believed to have come from the Irish folklore myth of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack was a “drunkard and cheat who was refused entry into both heaven, because he was a miser, and hell, because he played tricks on the devil.” He therefore roamed the dimension between the living and the dead with an ember from hell that he kept in a carved-out turnip as a lantern. Because his name was Jack and he used a lantern, he came to be known as Jack of the lantern.
The original jack’o’-lanterns were turnips, beets, and potatoes. They were “placed in the window or on the doorstep to frighten away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits.” When immigrants arrived in North America, they adapted this custom to the larger, native, and “naturally hollow” North American pumpkin. Interestingly, residents of Alberta have been advised to move the pumpkins into their houses to avoid attracting grizzly bears to their doorsteps.
Trick-or-treating was originally known as souling or mumming and “dates back to the Middle Ages.” The poor would “offer to sing prayers for the souls of a household’s dead in exchange for soul cakes.” Soul cakes were pastries and their distribution was encouraged by the church in order to “replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits.” Eventually, as Halloween became more secular, children started going souling in their neighbourhoods. They would “sing songs, recite poems, or perform other entertaining tricks in exchange for nuts, fruits, or coins.”
As for the origins of dressing up, the tradition has both European and Celtic roots. During the burning of bonfires and offering sacrifices on Samhain, Celts wore costumes, “typically consisting of animal heads and skins.” Later, on Halloween, individuals would wear masks when they ventured outside their homes to avoid being recognized by ghosts. They hoped that ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.
Halloween has inspired several Hollywood horror movies, and according to an annual survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, the total spending for Halloween in 2017 amounted to a whopping $9.1 billion. It continues to grow in popularity as more countries across the globe adopt Halloween—a celebration rich in history.