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The History of Halloween

By Olivia Ortlieb



With the coming of Halloween, you may have found yourself wondering how the many seemingly peculiar traditions surrounding this time of year came to be. This beloved holiday is much more ancient than you might think - its fascinating history spans back thousands of years. Read on to learn about the origins of Halloween and its dramatic evolution into the holiday that we celebrate today!


The earliest known occurrence of a Halloween-like celebration was the Celtic fire festival of Samhain, which began approximately 2 000 years ago, in modern day Ireland. Samhain took place for three days and three nights at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, and was intended to celebrate both the harvest and the beginning of the darker part of the year. During the festival, it was believed that the veil separating the living world from the spirit world became thinner. Samhain traditions included leaving offerings for fairies and lighting community bonfires. The Celts also dressed up in animal and monster costumes to ward off evil spirits. They would then visit their neighbours' houses and perform silly acts in return for food and drinks - a practice which eventually evolved into modern trick-or-treating. Later on, in the Middle Ages, carving turnips, known as Jack-o-Lanterns, and filling them with coal was a popular Samhain tradition, until the turnips were replaced with pumpkins.


As Christian influences began to take hold in pagan communities, efforts were made to transform Samhain into a Christian celebration. In the 5th century, Pope Boniface decreed that the festival would occur during May instead of October/November, and that it would be dedicated to the celebration of martyrs and saints. However, this decree did not succeed in bringing the celebration of Samhain to an end, so the date of the new festival was changed to November 1st and it was renamed All Saint’s Day, or All Hallows Day. All Hallows Day is still widely recognized around the world, especially in Europe, and is generally viewed as a day to honour one’s deceased relatives as well as the saints. The bonfires and parades typical of Samhain continued to occur on the day before this celebration, but it was renamed All Hallows Eve, which eventually evolved into Halloween.


When European immigrants came to North America, many brought their Halloween traditions along with them. However, the holiday only became widely celebrated on this continent in the mid-to-late 1800s, when immigration from Ireland and Scotland greatly increased. During this time period, many North American Halloween traditions revolved around fortune telling, which was often intended to reveal a woman’s future husband. Over time, such superstitious practices were replaced by more lighthearted activities like pranking one’s neighbours and giving away candy. In Canada, the first recorded incident of children dressing up in costumes for Halloween occurred in 1898, and the term trick-or-treating was first used in 1927. During WWII, trick-or-treating largely disappeared due to sugar rations, but it became more popular than ever right after, and is now deeply ingrained into our society.


I hope that learning about the origins of this weird and wonderful holiday has helped you to appreciate it a little bit more. Happy Halloween!

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