Halloween is a complex holiday, dating back over 2,000 years.
Combining ancient pagan rituals with the best of American consumerism, Halloween, or “Hallowe’en” in older spellings, has become a grab bag of old traditions with new spins.
Halloween is commonly traced back to the Celtic holiday of “Samhain” (pronounced “sow-en” or “sow-een”), which was celebrated more than 2,000 years ago.
Little is known definitively about the rituals associated with Samhain, but it has been determined that the holiday marked the end of summer and start of winter.
It was thought that on this day the dead returned to Earth as ghosts.
The Celts celebrated this event with huge bonfires, where their Druid priests would ritualistically sacrifice crops and animals to the gods.
When the Romans conquered the Celtic people, they brought with them two festivals which became combined with the native holiday of Samhain.
The first was the festival of Feralia, a celebration in late October for the passing of the deal. The second was the festival for Pomona, Roman goddess of fruit — she was often associated with the apple, which is likely the source of the “bobbing for apples” Halloween tradition.
When the Roman Empire fell, Christianity became the dominant force operating on the Celtic people.
In the seventh century Pope Boniface IV named Nov. 1 "All Saints Day." According to history.com, some theorize that this was partly in effort to replace the Celtic holiday with something associated with the Church.
This celebration also was called All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas, which came from the Middle English “Alholowmesse,” meaning All Saints Day. This lead to the night before, the 31st of October, being called All-Hallow’s Eve, and thus, “Halloween.”
The practice of dressing in costume for Halloween likely came from another Church holiday.
"All Souls Day," celebrated on Nov. 2, was created in year 1000 by the Church to commemorate the souls of the dead. On this holiday, people would dress up in costumes and parade.
Trick-or-treating also has an antecedent in All Souls Day with the tradition of “souling,” where people would travel from house to house and offer to say prayers for the dead in exchange for “soul cakes,” a small, round cake traditionally made for All Souls Day.
The Jack-O-Lantern and pumpkin carving traditions, however, are much more recent.
The legend of Jack-O-Lantern is Irish in origin, and deals with a wicked man named Jack, who, denied entry to both Heaven and Hell in his death, endlessly walks the Earth looking for a place to rest.
His “lantern” was originally a carved-out turnip or potato, but when Irish immigrants made their way to America in the 1840s, the pumpkin became the popular choice.
With bits of tradition that span thousands of years and across continents, Halloween is truly a patchwork holiday for modern times.