What does the word “Halloween” mean to you?
Do you see scary costumes, taste-tantalizing treats, and hear haunting melodies?
When I hear the word Halloween, I think about Whopper Malted Milk Balls melting on my tongue, the crisp weather of October, and the time my friend screamed so loudly at our local haunted house that the mad ax-man had to take off his mask to convince her it was fake.
My friends and family have so many fun Halloween traditions that it is difficult to imagine doing anything else on October 31st besides snuggling up with my jack-o-lantern blankie and watching Disney’s Sleepy Hollow for the seventeenth time. If I lived sometime in the past, however, my friends and I would be spending our Halloween in a very different manner. In the 19th century in England, for example, we would spend our evening baking “Soul Cakes” with our families. Contrarily, if we lived in the height of the Roman Empire, we would spend that time celebrating Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit. These traditions might seem strange when compared to modern Halloween events, but many see how our modern-day, sweet-loving, pumpkin-flavored holiday grew from such a peculiar past.
The origins of Halloween trace back to the Celtic tribes who lived over 2,000 years ago in modern-day Ireland. For some, the end of October marks when Starbucks starts selling their pumpkin spice lattes. For the ancient Celts, however, it marked the end of harvest and the approaching winter. As vegetation shriveled up in the coming cold and the sun began making shorter appearances in the day, the Celts began to transfer all their energy from planning their crops to worrying about winter stocks; concerns about snow, food storage, and sickness began to invade their days. As their concerns grew, the Celts would gather together in an end-of-season celebration to enjoy time with their community before hard snows isolated them. They lit huge bonfires, feasted together, danced, and sang late into the night. These celebrations were known as Samhain, which means “summer’s end.” Some believed that this transition between autumn and winter allowed troubled ‘spirits’ or ghosts to enter their world and cause them harm. Many Celts would dress up in animal skin or masks to confuse or scare these spirits and keep themselves safe during the festivities. This tradition carried on through generations of the Celtic tribes and was still a widespread practice by 40 AD.
In 43 AD, while the Roman Empire was busy at work trying to conquer the entire European continent, Roman legions made their way to Ireland. They added their traditions to the Celtic mix, one of which was the festival of Pomona. Pomona’s symbol was an apple, which leads many to believe that this tradition is what started the Halloween favorite of “bobbing for apples.”
Both the Celtic’s Samhain and the Roman’s Pomona festival fused to create a widespread celebration at the end of fall. Thus, in the mid-6th century, Pope Gregory III, desiring to establish a holiday to celebrate the Catholic Saints, established a holiday at this time. After all, people were already celebrating and feasting! Thus, November 1st became known as All Saints Day or All Hallows Day. People continued their traditional bonfire celebrations on All Hallow’s Eve, which was eventually shortened to simply Hallow’en (History of Halloween).
Later, the church extended this string of festivities to include November 2nd, or “All Souls Day.” This was a day for families to celebrate relatives or friends who had passed, to ensure their legacy was remembered. This holiday became especially popular in England, where the first roots of “trick-or-treating” took place. During “All Souls Day,” poor citizens who begged for food would be given “Soul Cakes.” Families baked these cakes during All Souls Day celebrations while they reminisced about deceased family members.
Thus, dressing up in costumes came from the ancient Celtics, whereas trick-or-treating came from England. Of course, we must not forget the Romans with their helpful addition of apples. Once this melting pot of traditions came together in the British islands, it formed a collaborative autumn holiday, which finally found its way to America during the great potato famine of 1846. Irish immigrants brought their traditions of Halloween with them across the Atlantic sea, initiating the spread of Halloween celebrations throughout North America. Building gigantic bonfires and wearing real animal skins seemed a little impractical in the Americas, so they altered their traditions. Instead, they constructed smaller fires inside of gourds (Jack-o-lanterns) and wore fake costumes. Americans welcomed this excuse for a good party and helped the tradition grow and thrive. Now Americans spend an average of 6 billion dollars on Halloween annually, and it is considered the second-largest commercialized holiday.
I might not be planning to scare away spirits by wearing animal fur this Halloween or lighting up a gigantic bonfire in my backyard. Nevertheless, is always interesting to learn where traditions come from. God made a wonderful world full of different and interesting cultures so we could learn from each other. History characterizes a fascinating textbook waiting to share lessons and stories. I think the ancient Celts, Romans, and English were trying to teach the importance of friends and family through their Halloween traditions. They teach that a strong community keeps its members safe, and family is an important faction that should always be remembered. Also, they teach that sweet cakes are an excellent accompaniment to any celebration!
While I would much rather spend my Halloween munching on chocolate and sipping spiced apple cider then wearing real animal skins and worrying about the coming winter, I am still glad that I learned about these ancient traditions. This year when I slip on my sparkly pumpkin costume and prepare to participate in Halloween merriment, I will remember the past communities that founded and expanded this fun fall tradition.
“Halloween History & Origin.” Halloween History and Origin, 2003, www.halloween
website.com/history.htm. Accessed 21 Sep. 2017.
“History of Halloween.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009,
www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween. Accessed 21 Sep. 2017.
About the Author:
Name: Juliet Lucas
How many years were you apart of TPS before you graduated?
I started TPS when I was in eighth grade, and continued classes through high school. My favorite classes were History Through Film and Home Economics. Even though I graduated last spring, I still feel very connected to the TPS community.
What college are you attending?
I am currently attending DVC Community College and hope to transfer to a University within the next three years.
What are a few of your hobbies?
I love being outdoors, and I often go on hikes and shoot archery with my family. When I am inside, I am usually reading or writing short stories. My favorite pastime is making short films with my friends, which I spend a great deal of time editing.