Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition. It's one of the oldest holidays we celebrate today. Halloween is celebrated on October 31st. Today it's no more than a fun holiday for kids, families and mischief makers. It's a day to be someone else, tell scary stories and pig out on candy without worrying about diets and tooth decay (if only for a day). But where does Halloween come from? Many people have no idea of the vast history surrounding the holiday. Halloween is a mixture of ancient Celtic rituals, Roman pagan and Roman Catholic practices, and European folk traditions blended together over the centuries.
Halloween is believed to have it's origins in the Celtic holiday of Samhain almost 2,000 years ago, in the region that makes up Ireland, Northern France, and the United Kingdom today. The Celts believed that on the eve of the new year, which was on November 1st, the veil between the world of the living and the domain of the dead was lifted and spirits could return to walk among the living freely. This day was known as Samhain and fell on October the 31st. The Celts believed these spirits were the source of damaged crops and other sorts of trouble. It was also believed that the Druids, or Celtic priests, were able to make predictions about the future thanks to the spirits’ presence. To celebrate this day, the Druids would light bonfires, burn crops and sacrifice animals to their gods. The Celts would also dress up to ward off the evil spirits which may have returned.
In the four hundred years that followed the defeat of the Celts and the Romans' take over, two Roman festivals mixed with the Celtic traditions of Samhain. One of these festivals was Feralia, in late October. On this day the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second festival was sometimes called Pamona or the harvest. It was a day in which the Romans celebrated Pamona, the goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pamona is the apple.
By the seventh century, when Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire, Pope Bonafice IV declared that November 1st would become All Saints Day, a day which honored the Christian Saints. It is believed that this was a way of converting any remaining Pagans. All Saints Day was also known as All Hallows or All Hallowmas. Samhain became known as All Hallows Eve and today, Halloween. By the year 1000, the church declared November the 2nd, All Souls Day, to celebrate the dead. On this day the Romans lit bonfires, dressed up as angels, saints and demons and held festivals. The celebration of All Saints Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day made up Hallowmas, which dominated Europe for centuries.
Hallowmas would again change and morph with new traditions when European settlers would bring their traditions to the New World or America. Those traditions would then mix with Native American traditions to create the uniquely, distinct version of Halloween Americans celebrate today.
For More on all Things Halloween
- Halloween in New York City: Things to See and Do
- Fun & Interesting Halloween Trivia Facts
- Great Songs for a Halloween Playlist
Symbols of Halloween
Many things, whether it be colors, animals or objects, have come to be associated with Halloween for countless reasons. From apples to ghosts, and from Jack O’ Lanterns to Black Cats; these are the symbols of All Hallows Eve.
The symbol of the apple may date back to the time of the Romans. As I mentioned earlier, their celebration of their goddess Pamona, helped influence the Halloween we know today. Pamona’s symbol is that of the apple, which may explain the modern association of the apple to Halloween. Also to bite an apple was believed to bring good fortune, which may have led the bobbing for apples.
Colors (Orange, Black, Purple, Green and Red):
Over time as other symbols became associated with Halloween, certain colors too became associated with Halloween; colors such as black, green, purple, orange and red. Black represented death and night (as well as black cats, bats, witches, etc.). Red represented the life blood and/or evil (as well as apples, vampires, etc.). Orange represented fire, light and autumn (as well as pumpkins, jack o’ lanterns, etc.). Green represented the end of summer and the harvest (as well as monsters, goblins, etc.). Purple represented night, mysticism and the supernatural.
Jack O’ Lanterns:
Jack O’ Lanterns is one of the big symbols of Halloween. The carving of pumpkins came from the Irish tradition of carving scary faces into turnips and placing then in the windows to ward off “Jack of the Lantern” or Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack was doomed to wander endlessly through the nights with nothing but a burning coal in a hollowed turnip for light. Irish immigrants brought this tradition to the United States and began using pumpkins instead of turnips.
This is another biggie of Halloween symbols. Black cats have always been considered spiritual. They are often linked to witches, the ability to sense good and evil and being reincarnations of people. The latter of the links could be the reason that black cats are now associated with Halloween seeing as the belief in spirits is strongest on this holiday.
Yet another big symbol of Halloween today. It was believed that the spirits' presence on All Hallows Eve, strengthened the powers of witches. They were believed to be able to commune with black cats and were associated with devils (or gods if you were a pagan). There are many superstitions about witches; including walking backwards with your clothes inside out to see a witch flying on her broomstick through the night sky on Halloween.
Bats were a common sight at Samhain festivals during ancient times. This is due to the Celts lighting huge bonfires. As many know light and heat attracts insects, so naturally predators of insects would follow them toward the light, for an all you can eat insect buffet. Also bats having thick magical associations connect them to the mysticism that surrounds the holiday of Halloween.
Owls, like bats, were commonly seen at the Samhain bonfires looking for easy prey. Also Owls were symbols of wisdom and hidden nature. They were also associated with the spirit world. So these combined caused the ancient Celts to associate them with Samhain. The Celts would use witches to communicate with owls to gain insight into their burning questions.
This one's pretty obvious. Ghosts are the biggest symbol of Halloween and it's no wonder why! Halloween is deeply rooted in celebrations of the dead by many cultures throughout history and throughout the world. It would make perfect sense to associate ghosts and spirits with Halloween.
Skeletons and Skulls are huge sights on Halloween. Everyone has some type of Skeleton decoration hanging somewhere. This association may seem obvious, being Halloween is rooted in the celebration of the dead, but there's more to Skeletons than meets the eye. Skulls in particular represented psychic ability. It was believed their presence invoked a heightened awareness of humans' psychic potential. During Halloween the power invoked by skulls is thought to double due to spirits' presence.
Spiders are yet another animal symbol of Halloween. Spiders were believed to be the bearers of mystic energy. Their webs are symbolic of time, fate and the human journey. It's very fitting that these mystical creatures would become symbols of All Hallows Eve. Spiders, like cats, were often thought to be witches' familiars.
Masks & Costumes:
Dressing up on Halloween is an ancient tradition that dates all the way back to the ancient Celts. The Celts wore costumes to ward off spirits on Samhain. Later the Roman Catholics would dress up as angels, saints and/or devils on their festivals of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (or Hallowmas). This tradition continues today with children and adults dressing up in costumes and enjoying the festivities of modern-day Halloween.
Customs and Traditions
There are many traditions and customs of Halloween throughout the world. Over the centuries many of these customs have been changed or blended or even distorted by cultural diffusion. Though some countries still carry out their old school traditions as well as the new school ones, most places now celebrate Halloween much the same with slight or no variations. The most famous traditions and customs of Halloween today are:
- Dressing up in Costume
- Bobbing for Apples
- Trick or Treating
- Pumpkin Picking
- Carving Jack O Lanterns
- Haunted Houses
- Mischief Making
- Decorating the Home with skeletons, witches, vampires, etc.
- Honoring the Dead by Visiting Graves, Praying, Festivals, Leaving food out, etc.
- Eating Candy with No Regard for Diets or Tooth Decay
- Religious Ceremonies and/or Rituals
Have a Happy Halloween!!!
Skylar Spring © copyright 2011
MJC from UK on December 27, 2012:
A great article. I love to read about the history of traditions. Your well written hub informed me entirely about Halloween. Thank you. Voted up.
Chen on October 19, 2012:
Very good history. Thanks for sharing, that was a very interesting and informative hub. This time of year is very fascinating. That image is beautiful, by the way.
Skylar Spring (author) from New York on September 29, 2011:
@Muvver... That's one of the Christian tradition of All Souls Day they're following. Some people do that here too. That part of France you live in used to be Celtic land, I'm surprised none of their traditions survived.
muvver on September 28, 2011:
in france they all go to the grave yards on 31st oct and lay flowers it whole villages go the one here is a blaze of color whole familys come from 100s of miles away to meet up its something the uk have never done they never seme to remember sad keep writting we are very interested in what you write