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How History Helped Shape Halloween

Why do we go door-to-door dressed up? Why do we create Jack O' Lanterns?

Yard decorated with a giant glowing pumpkin for Halloween

Photo: Terry Tyson (flickr)

Decorating for Halloween has become a popular tradition.

Trick-or-treat? Why do we go to people’s houses and ask for candy? A Moment of Science investigates the history behind Halloween.

Celtic Traditions

Halloween dates back over 2,000 years ago to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. During Samhain, Celtic farmers celebrated four major holidays a year, based on the seasons.

On October 31, the night before the new year, the Celts celebrated Samhain. October 31st was the day they believed the ghosts of the dead came back to Earth. Celtic priests set bonfires and made crop and animal sacrifices. They believed this pleased the dead spirits.  The Celtic people also dressed up in various animal skins to fool and scare away evil demons.

Roman Rule

By 43 A.D., the Celtie territories were conquered by the Romans.

Eventually, Roman colonies brought over their own harvest festival traditions: Feralia, a day in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead. This was followed by a day of tribute to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. This is where “Bobbing for fruit” came from.

These traditions were combined with the Celtic traditions.

Christianity And Ghosts

In the 600s, Christianity was growing. The Pope declared followers of Samhaim witches.

In the 8th century, the Pope declared November 1st “All Saints Day” which was another attempt to try and stop Pagan practices. “All Saints Day” eventually became “All Hallows Eve” which became “Halloween.”

Soon, the church declared November 2nd as “All Souls Day.” English people would go door-to-door promising to pray for deceased loved ones in exchange for food, clothing, and other items. This eventually turned into going door-to-door dressed in a faerie or demon costume.

Halloween Traditions

By the mid 19th century, immigrants were coming to America bringing with them their traditions.

Their bonfires soon became carved-out gourds sporting candles ( Jack O’ Lanterns). Festival time was celebrated by going from house to house in a costume.

Modern Day

By 1986, Halloween was the 3rd largest “party day.” New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl Sunday are the only two days ahead of it. Halloween is also the second largest commercial holiday, averaging $6.9 billion spent on candy, costumes, and decorations.

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Margaret Aprison

Margaret is a graduate of Indiana University with a degree in Telecommunications and a minor in Psychology. The daughter of two scientists, Margaret has been surrounded by the subject her entire life. She enjoys social media, writing, television, and, of course, science!

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