The history of Halloween |

The history of Halloween

Philip KalfasSpecial to The Aspen Times

Halloween is an amazing holiday. Think about it. It’s a day when we, children and adults alike, get to dress up in costumes and celebrate in a make-believe world of parties, pumpkins and candy.Kids dream of this day as soon as October rolls around. And adults make their last-minute rush to buy treats for the visitors and pull together a costume for that party at a friend’s house or down at the local bar. Why do we make all these ridiculous preparations and carry out these strange customs? The widely accepted belief is that Halloween began approximately 2,500 years ago as an ancient Celtic celebration called Samhain (rhymes with “cow-in” as the “mh” is pronounced as a “w” sound). The Celts were a people who lived in northern France and the British Isles long ago. Early November was when people in western and northern Europe finished harvesting, butchered stock and held great feasts. Samhain was their celebration marking the end of summer. At this special time in their pastoral lives, people would extinguish hearth fires to signal what is believed to have been the end of the Celtic year.As sundown approached, young people would go around the community asking for kindling and wood to create a large bonfire on top of a nearby hill. The Celtic religious priests, the Druids, then lit these sacred bonfires to honor their gods.The embers of these communal bonfires were used to relight the hearth fires in each of the homes for the next year. In order to help them carry the embers from the bonfire back to their homes, people used hollowed-out turnips or gourds to protect their hands and retain the heat of the embers. All of the hearth fires, then, came from a common source, reinforcing the sense of community and oneness with the gods.Reign of chaosWhile this time of year may have marked the end of the harvest and the time when the animals would be brought in from pasture, it also marked the beginning of a dark, cold winter – a time when life was the hardest on the Celts. Not only was it when the old and weak animals would be culled and killed, but in the winter months more people died than any other time of year. Unsurprisingly, Samhain became associated with death – of crops, of animals and of people. There were, however, other reasons for this connection with death.Celtic society was highly structured and organized; everyone knew his place. At special times of the year, however, the Druids allowed the Celtic order and structure to be abolished, creating a time when chaos could reign, when people did crazy things or stepped out of their usual roles. As such, it was when the barriers between the natural and the supernatural were temporarily removed, when the passage between the world of the living and the world of the dead was the easiest. It was the night when the dead could walk among and communicate with the living.Druid rites, and the bonfire itself, were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration, it should be noted, rather than as sources of dread. And although the Celts did believe in gods, giants, monsters, witches, spirits and elves, these were not considered evil so much as dangerous.By putting out their hearth fires, the Celts were not only signaling the year’s end, but also making their homes cold and undesirable to the spirits. To protect themselves while they were making their way home from the communal fires, the Celts would dress up in grotesque costumes and carve faces into the gourds they used to carry the embers, scaring away the roaming spirits as they made their way home at night. These Celtic rituals and customs associated with Samhain were practiced for hundreds of years. And despite the political, military and social turmoil that enveloped the lives of the Celts when the Romans arrived, they were able to survive through the Roman occupation and into the Christian era.Enter the RomansIt was about 2,000 years ago that the Romans conquered the regions where the Celts lived. In an effort to adapt Celtic customs to their own, the Romans blended the rituals of Samhain into two of their holidays. With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the emergence of Christianity as the dominant religion throughout Europe, Samhain again was adapted to meet the needs of the controlling authorities.Because the descendants of the Celts were slow to give up the celebration of their old holidays, the Catholic Church leaders sought to replace those holidays with ones connected to Christianity. In a first step, around the year 835 A.D., the Catholic Church moved one of its holidays, All Saints Day, from May 13 to Nov. 1, the day after Samhain evening. This Christian holiday was to commemorate all the saints who didn’t have their own special day during the year.In 1,000 A.D., the Catholic Church established a new holiday on Nov. 2, All Souls Day, to honor all faithful Christians who had died but were not saints. During these days young men went from door to door begging for food for the poor and villagers, sometimes dressing up in costumes to represent saints, a custom that could have been adopted from the Celts, who dressed up to scare away spirits. The moving of All Saints Day also helped establish the name for the holiday once known as Samhain. Long ago, instead of using the word “saint,” the English used the word “hallow,” which meant “to make holy.” The three-day period from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 was called “Hallow Tide,” and the evening before All Saints Day became known as “All Hallow’s Eve.” It was shortened from “Hallow Evening” to “Hallowe’en.” In time it lost the apostrophe and any recognition of the word “evening.”Halloween, then, can be considered a Celtic seasonal celebration merged with Roman holidays to honor the dead and the harvest and adopted as a Catholic-Christian holiday to honor saints.Evolution of a major holidaySo how did it become the major holiday that it is today? How did it become a holiday centered around costumes, parties, candy and creepy things? By migrating to America, of course, although its significance was rather limited at first.In the early decades of our country’s existence, most of the people who settled here were not Catholics, but rather Protestant Christians who had separated from the Catholic Church. These early Protestant settlers rejected Halloween and all things Catholic.Instead, the non-Catholic farming population held autumn play-parties to celebrate the harvest. They would dance, sing, feast, tell ghost stories and light bonfires as part of a community gathering before the long winter months descended. These autumn parties lasted until the mid-1800s, when people began moving into the cities and no longer needed the social get-togethers of the countryside.The celebration of Halloween was given a boost by the Scottish and Irish Catholic immigrants who came to America to escape the potato famine in the mid-1800s. In addition to being Catholics who had long celebrated Hallow Tide, these people were related to the ancient Celts. As such, they brought with them the custom of dressing up and going door-to-door asking for food or money. They also adopted the easily carved and indigenous pumpkin to replace the gourds they had used in their home countries.As the number of Catholics in America increased over time, they launched an aggressive advertising campaign to promote their holidays and put them on the national calendar. Efforts were made to take the frightening and grotesque out of the holiday, making it more of a social event by the late 1800s.The first citywide celebrations occurred in the 1920s and soon spread across the country, establishing Oct. 31 as an unofficial holiday. Greatly aided by the baby boom that followed World War II, Halloween evolved into the community holiday it is today, focusing on children, parties, candy and spooky things. Today it ranks second in total holiday sales, behind Christmas. Of course, it is also the time of year when the most candy is sold.Philip Kalfas is a Basalt resident who is a student of Halloween; his sources for this story include, among others, and

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