As (arguably) the most fascinatingly weird holiday there is, it's not surprising that Halloween has a rich, varied, and somewhat elusive history. Between all the candy consumption, dress up opportunities, mischief making, and dark side dabbling, the holiday is traceable to an ancient Celtic festival. From there, it only gets more complex, though. If you're like, wait, what about the witches and ghosts and stuff? don't worry, we'll get there, but first, we're dipping into the real dark side of the holiday, which has much more to do with the violence of imperialism than it does with The Wicked Witch of the West.
Like many annual rituals that now seem arbitrary (dyeing eggs on Easter? It's all about fertility! But that's a whole other tangent we'll save for spring), several Halloween traditions have origin stories deeply rooted in mythology. So keep reading to learn about Halloween's origin story and how it has evolved over the centuries at the whims of history and through oral tradition to into the beguiling—albeit commercialized—holiday we know and love today.
Ancient Celtic Origins
The OG Halloween predates Christianity, stretching all the way to an ancient Celtic celebration (and by ancient we mean about 2,000 years ago) known as Samhain (pronounced "sow-in") in what is now modern-day Ireland, parts of France, and the United Kingdom. Like most ancient holidays, Samhain marked a transition of seasons, from summer to the beginning of winter, hence the sort of dark and stormy vibes of Halloween today. Celebrators believed that on this night, October 31st, the portal between the realm of the living and the dead opened, allowing lost souls to return to human-occupied earth.
This ghostly presence was associated with a few things, from the agricultural—wreaking havoc on crops—to the supernatural—enhancing the clairvoyant capacity of Druids (Celtic priests) so that they could make predictions and communicate with the dead to facilitate happier, warmer winters. The festivals also typically involved bonfires, at which the attendees wore costumes (yup!) and participated in sacrifices of crops and animals. Afterwards, the community would use the bonfire to light their own hearths as a sort of closing ceremony for summer and an initiation of winter. So while death and fear are at the heart of it, so are fun and celebration.
Roman Rule (27 BCE—476 CE)
After the Roman Empire conquered much of the Celtic territory in 43 CE, Romans ruled there for some few hundred centuries, during which the tradition evolved with many Catholic influences. There are some links to the Roman festival of Feralia, in which the community mourned its dead, as well as another ceremony called Pomona (named for the Roman Goddess of the Apple), in which celebrators honored fruits and trees.
The Middle Ages
By a few hundred years into Roman reign, the Catholic church was increasingly attempting to replace "Pagan" practices (or, indigenous ones), with their own, often while vilifying the former—but keeping some of its traditions. In the eighth century, when "local people converted to Christianity during the early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church often incorporated modified versions of older religious traditions in order to win converts," reports Albany University. As a result, many elements of Samhain persisted. And according to History.com, "the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead," and all saints known and unknown, in an attempt to replace the Celtic holiday with a church-sanctioned version of it. Festivities on this day included dressing up as various saints, angels, and the devil. All Saint's Day was also known as "All Hallow's Days," hence, the later moniker of All Hallow's Eve.
16th Century England
In the 1500s, England's King Henry VIII cut ties with the Roman Catholic Church (because the pope refused to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon). As a result, there was much more tolerance extended to the Protestant Church for some years, but the Church of England remained mostly Catholic—and became even more so during the reign of Queen Mary I, aka Bloody Mary. She established England's connection to the Roman Catholic Church, in part by ordering the execution of 300 Protestants. After her, it was sort of the opposite, as Queen Elizabeth I, was a Protestant. Okay, but what does this have to do with Halloween, you might be thinking. Well, let's fast forward to the pilgrimage across the Atlantic.
In What Is Now the United States
Colonial Period (1600s—1700s)
The popularity of Hallow's Eve during the American Colonial era varied from place to place, depending on how devoutly Protestant the communities were. The early settler colonialists were Puritans and fled England because of religious persecution, which is why they were known as Separatists. So, for example, in a very Puritanical New England, Hallow's Eve wasn't as widespread, but in less rigid southern colonies, the holiday was still observed. During this era, celebrations around the harvest emerged and became associated with Hallow's Eve, likely a result of the cultural exchanges between indigenous people and Anglo-Saxon settler colonialists. Similar to the way in which the Roman Catholic Church replaced indigenous cultural and religious practices with their own iterations, the same happened here with the settlers and local indigenous populations.
The Early Republic (late 1700s—1800s)
A few generations later, once the U.S. won independence and formed a nation, the country saw a huge wave of European immigrants, who brought with them new traditions—and media. In 1759, Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a poem entitled Halloween, which described some of the holiday's practices at the time, and introduced the term we know today. "The word itself seems to be a portmanteau of the word 'Hallow,' which originally meant 'saint', mixed with 'een' which was an abbreviation of the word "eve," or night before," according to BigThink.com.
European and American Imperialism
So how did the holiday reach so many different countries around the world? The answer is simple: European Imperialism. As with most holidays, Halloween celebrations vary from region to region, and different modern iterations of the traditions stem from different ancient cultural practices, but one common thread is the brutality of imperialism and accompanying forced assimilation.
Spanish Imperialism in South America (late 1500s—1900s)
While English Separatists were fighting for independence during the 1600s and 1700s and then later in the Early Republic, they were also establishing a nation in which citizenship was inextricably liked to and defined by one's relationship to landownership (i.e., you could only be a citizen if you owned land—and you could only own land if you were a white man, hence the power structures we continue to see today). Similar practices were unfolding in other parts of the continent, except in this case, the colonizers were Spanish Catholics.
Even as the Spanish Catholic conquistadores subjugated indigenous people to forced conversion, there were still, of course, traces of local worship and culture, resulting in a fusing of indigenous practices with Catholic holidays. That's why figures like Santa Muerte—which the official Catholic church still refuses to recognize as a part of the canon—persist today. Day of the Dead also falls on the Catholic Holiday All Saints, and looks quite different from Americanized Halloween—but more on that in a minute.
British Imperialism during the Victorian Era (1800s—1900)
This time period, of course, was also one of British expansion and subjugation. Of course, along with colonization came the violent and forced assimilation of other religious practices. According to the Washington Post, "the irony is that, while the British were responsible for spreading Halloween, they also spent several decades trying to stamp it out," when in the late 19th century, "the strict Victorian social code called for, among other things, a rigid class hierarchy, gender roles that privileged men over women, sexual restraint, an obsession with manners and a deep disdain for all things that might be perceived as indulgent." Halloween, having to do with dressing up, superstitions, and death, was of course one of the many practices that come under fire.
Halloween experienced a resurgence in the U.K. and its colonies all over the globe (like Hong Kong and Singapore, among many others) after Queen Victoria died in 1901 and social attitudes gradually shifted.
American Imperialism (1900s—)
The turn of the century also marked by the rise of U.S. military intervention abroad in countries like the Philippines, Japan, Hawaii, Iran and others, where the spread of American cultural practices, traditions, and media was one way to fulfill what scholar Homi K. Bhabha deems "colonial mimicry," meaning peripheral access to dominant American culture. Media, of course, includes all that Halloween stuff. So in many of these countries, you'll see local influences fused with the commercialized Anglo-Saxon version of the holiday, emphasizing the pattern of Halloween as both a site of resistance and dominance.
By the time the 1950s rolled around, Halloween was incredibly commercial as more and more industries were able to profit off of it. As Vox reports, confectionaries knew candy would be an easy thing to pass out on Hallow's Eve, and predicted that kids would want it (duh), so they increased production, thus, increasing affordability and accessibility and ultimately sales... which finally brings us to some of (presumably) your favorite Halloween staples, like trick-or-treating and dressing up.
Behind the Modern Day Motifs
Halloween is a hybrid of mythologies and histories born of both both resistance and oppression, joy and mourning, life and death, an origin story befitting a holiday that celebrates the obscure and occult—and the longevity and persistence of folklore, community, and identity.
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