Where Did Halloween Come From?

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halloween1On one special night each year, ghosts, goblins, witches, and other odd creatures flood the streets around the world. What is the meaning of this strange occurrence? It is Halloween, of course!

Eeeeeks! Before October 31, people begin decking out their houses with witches, black spiders and cobwebs, and jack-o-lanterns. They flock to the store to buy candy, and children gleefully pick out costumes in anticipation of going from house to house trick-or-treating.

However how did such a strange holiday get its start?

A History of Halloweenhalloween2

The roots of the holiday called Halloween originated from a Celtic tradition from thousands of years ago. The Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain on the last day before the Celtic New Year, which began on November 1. On this day, the Celts believed the ghosts of those who died that year traveled into the otherworld. On October 31, more than any other day of the year, fairies, demons, and other spirits came to wander the earth. The Celts lit bonfires and offered sacrifices to aid the ghosts in their journeys and to keep the spirits away from the living.

In 837 AD, as Christian missionaries attempted to convert the Celts, Pope Gregory IV made November 1 All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows. It was a day to pray for and honor the Christian saints. The Catholic Church, however, was unable to suppress the Celts’ beliefs and, years later, instituted a new holiday on November 2, All Souls’ Day. During All Souls’ Day, the living pray for the souls of the deceased. Because this Catholic holiday was more in line with the festival of Samhain and the beliefs of the Celts, many of the Celtic traditions continued, albeit under the guise of celebrating a Catholic festival. Samhain merged with the celebrations of Hallowmass, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day to eventually become the modern Halloween. For a written explanation of role the Catholic Church played in this transition, students may read an article from the American Folklife Center explaining The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows.

halloween5Halloween Today

Pair students and ask them to brainstorm about and to create a list of traditions they associate with Halloween. Students should come up with traditions such as dressing up in costumes, going trick-or-treating for candy, carving pumpkins to make jack-o-lanterns, telling and watching ghost stories and scary movies, decorating houses with images of bats, witches, and black cats, and much more.

Current Halloween festivities look very different from those during the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. So where did all of these customs originate? One of the mainstays of Halloween, dressing up in costume and going from house to house gathering candy, began well over a thousand years ago when the ancient Celts and early Christians left out offerings of food and drink to appease the spirits roaming the earth on October 31.

Eventually, people dressed up as spirits in exchange for food and drink, thus transitioning into our modern tradition of trick-or-treating. In England, people made soul cakes as offerings for these wandering spirits, but as the years passed, the English began handing the cakes to beggars who went from house to house on All Souls’ Eve exchanging a prayer for the soul cake. For an overview of these and other traditions, watch this brief overview of Halloween’s Origins from the History Channel.


Students can also read about the History of the Jack-O-Lantern from the History Channel (there are additional video clips about the pumpkin above). Next find out more about the Great Pumpkin harvested in Pennsylvania.

Throughout the centuries, Halloween has moved from a religious holiday to one celebrated by pop culture. Americans alone spend billions of dollars each year on costumes, treats, and all the other paraphernalia that goes along with Halloween. For a look at some numbers associated with Halloween in 2007, have students visit the U.S. Census Bureau’s site about Halloween.

Halloween around the World

So what does Halloween look like around the world? Although American culture has greatly influenced how people celebrate Halloween around the world, there are regional differences. Skim through this list of Halloween around the World customs and then read more at Travel Channel’s ‘Haunted’. Have students read an about Soul Cakes, and encourage them to make and try the popular eighth-century treat. Then have students view a New York Times Halloween photos slideshow of Halloween pictures from around the United States and world.

halloween3One major Mexican holiday happens to coincide with Halloween. Prior to Spanish colonization, Mexico celebrated the Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) at the end of July and beginning of August. The arrival of Spanish conquistadors during the fifteenth century, however, resulted in the celebrations being moved to November 1st and 2nd, thereby coinciding with the Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. Many Mexicans believe that on these days, deceased ancestors return to the earth, and they celebrate in honor of this event.

Mexicans colorfully decorate graves, and the cemeteries come alive as families spend all night at the grave sites eating, drinking, and dancing. To learn more about the Day of the Dead, have students visit the award-winning Web site Day of the Dead in Mexico. Students can learn about the Day of the Dead traditions throughout the various regions of Mexico, see recipes, and view photographs of the celebrations. For a good overview of the festival, students may view a short Discovery Channel video about the Day of the Dead.

For more videos about El Día de los Muertos, direct students to azcentral.com’s site on the Day of the Dead. As we decorate our houses, buy Halloween candy, and decide on costumes, most of us give little thought to the origins of our Halloween traditions, yet this holiday is full of ancient traditions and beliefs well over a thousand years old. It is amazing to look back and see how an ancient Celtic tradition has changed into our modern-day trick-or-treating.



Discovery Channel – The History of Halloween

The History Channel – The History of Halloween

The History Channel – Halloween’s Origins

The American Folklife Center – The Fantasy and Folkore of All Hallows

U.S. Census Bureau – Halloween

Novareina - Halloween around the World

Travel Channel – Haunted

NPR – Soul Cakes

The New York Times – Halloween slideshow

Day of the Dead

Discovery Channel – Day of the Dead

azcentral.com – Day of the Dead

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