The History of Halloween: Exploring the Age-Old Origins of the Enchanting Holiday | My Modern Met

By Kelly Richman-Abdou and Sara Barnes on October 22, 2021

Ephemera, 1912 (Photo: Toronto Public Library, Public domain)

How much do you know about the history of Halloween?


For centuries, people young and old have reveled in the fun and frightening festivities of Halloween. Occurring every year on the last day of October, the haunted holiday is a festive way to celebrate the fall season and an exciting way to embrace the occult, making it one of contemporary culture’s most exciting annual events. But what is the true history of Halloween?

Though it’s wildly popular today, Halloween is not merely a modern phenomenon. In fact, its roots date back thousands of years, spanning Celtic festivals, Catholic holidays, and even British burial rituals. Here, we explore its age-old origins, tracing its twisting evolution and contextualizing its spellbinding traditions.


Enchanting Etymology


Before jumping into the ancient holiday’s history, it’s helpful to start with the basics and learn the origins of its name. The word Halloween has evolved from Hallowe’en. In turn, this whimsical word is shorthand for “hallowed evening,” and refers specifically to All Hallows’ Eve. All Hallows’ Eve is a celebration that occurs on October 31, the day before All Saints’ Day, an important Christian festival.

Along with All Souls’ Day on November 2, All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day make up Allhallowtide, a triduum (three-day religious observance) dedicated to the dead. While Allhallowtide has been officially observed by the Church since the 8th century, Halloween’s history dates back even further, beginning with an ancient festival.


What is the history of Halloween?



While the holiday’s exact origin remains mysterious, historians have found a link to Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”), a pre-Christian, Celtic festival commemorating the end of summer. This annual autumnal fete was celebrated from sunset to sunset (October 31 to November 1) in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, and it can be traced back 2,000 years.

According to Celtic folklore, the barrier between the living and the dead was at its most permeable during this harvest holiday. In addition to facilitating communication with the dearly departed, this phenomenon meant that spirits could return to earth. To welcome these visiting specters, Celts would make offerings of food and channel their spiritual energy to tell each other’s fortunes.

On top of its supernatural roots, historians believe Samhain also served a more functional purpose: to prepare for the coming cold. During this festival, people would collect resources for the winter and gather animals from the pastures.

By the first century CE, most Celtic territory was conquered by the Roman Empire. Inevitably, their rituals and festivals began to blend, culminating in new hybrid holidays. Samhain, for example, merged with the Roman festival of Pomona, a harvest-inspired feast believed to have taken place on November 1.

Jakub Schikaneder, “All Souls’ Day,” 1888 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)


Though these harvest holidays would go on to last for centuries, they underwent dramatic changes in the 8th century. During this time, Pope Gregory III reinterpreted the Pagan festival as a series of Catholic holidays.

Specifically, he declared November 1 All Saints’ Day, a holiday intended to honor “saints, martyrs, and confessors” in heaven, with October 31 serving as the preparatory All Hallows Eve. The triduum, however, was not complete until the 11th century, when November 2 became All Souls’ Day—a holiday dedicated to all baptized Catholics who have died.


Traditions Still Practiced Today

Though the days of October 31 through November 2 were initially intended as somber days of reflection, Halloween today is primarily known for its playful traditions—like trick-or-treating, donning costumes, and carving pumpkins.


Photo: Stock Photos from


To many, trick-or-treating is the custom most closely associated with Halloween. Today, it is practiced by children and consists of dressing up in costumes and going door-to-door collecting candy, trinkets, and other treats. Historians have linked this practice to both Samhain and medieval customs in the British Isles.

Ancient Celts believed that, during Samhain, ghosts would disguise themselves as beggars to trick people into giving them food, money, and other coveted commodities. According to this superstition, rejecting a costumed spirits’ pleas resulted in a curse, prompting people to give away goodies during the day-long festival.

Similarly, trick-or-treating is also likely tied to “souling” a British practice that emerged in the Middle Ages and lasted until 1930. Inspired by Mummers’ Plays—theatrical productions of folktales—souling was a ritual in which children and needy people dressed in costumes would knock on doors begging. […]

Continue reading: The History of Halloween: Exploring the Age-Old Origins of the Enchanting Holiday

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