A Short History of Halloween

History of Halloween

The history of Halloween is for sure ancient and poorly recorded as much of pre-Roman Europe did not keep a written record. Halloween, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, can be traced back at least over 2,000 years to a pre-Christian Celtic festival held around Nov. 1 called Samhain, which means “summer’s end” in Gaelic, one of the pre-Roman languages of the British Isles. The end of summer represented the end of light evenings, the end of warmth, and the end of plenty, as winter was often a time of scarcity and famine. So maybe a sort of Harvest Festival. This transition between light and dark was also believed to represent a time when the ghosts of the dead could cross over from one  world to the next.

All Hallows is an old term for All Saints’ Day (Hallow, from the Old English “halig”, or holy, as in Hallowed ground), celebrated on November 1st. The medieval Catholic church introduced a festival of the dead at this time of year, designating 1 November as the feast of All Saints, initially in honour of the early Christian martyrs, and 2 November as All Souls, on which people could pray for their dead friends and relatives. These two Christian holy days developed between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, and started in Germanic or Frankish lands. It is likely that the pagan festival of Samhain and the Christian festival of All Saints at some point were fused into the celebration now called Halloween.

There is a long tradition of giving gifts to the poor on All Saints’ Day, especially in European Catholic countries like Ireland and Italy. In medieval times the idea would be that beggars would say prayers for the souls of the dead in exchange for food. Some people would disguise themselves and go door-to-door, asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead. How this led, in the 20th century, to children in America dressing up in scary costumes and demanding candy is unclear and we will write about that part of the history of Halloween later.

Incidentally, from ancient history of Halloween to the modern. You know that Halloween is on October 31st but did you know that October 8th has been designated National Zombie Day?