Believe it or not, the spooky and fun Halloween celebration has an over 2,000 years old history. Obviously, not all the traditions were exactly the same back then as they are today, but there is one element that can be seen along the entire history of the holiday: the spirits of the dead.
The story begins with the ancient Celtic festival of Samuin or Samhain (pronounced “sow-an” or “sow-in”), which ritually marked the end of the summer and the beginning of the cold and gloomy winter season. Because during this time of the year many were unable to face the cold and died, the Samhain was an ideal time to think about and celebrate the people who had died in every family. The boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead were believed to be broken for that special night on October 31. After that mystical night, when the spirits of the dead roamed freely on Earth, the Celtic new year began, on November 1.
The Celtics also believed that they could protect themselves from the spirits of the dead by tricking and bribing them. So, on that spooky night they only went out wearing masks, so that they wouldn’t be recognized by ghosts. Basically, people tried to make themselves look like one of the evil spirits wandering among the living. They also tried to appease the demons by offering them food and treats. They would put these gifts outside their homes hoping that the spirits would not come inside after them. Lights were also lit to help the dead find their way back to the land of spirits.
Much later, in 1000 A.D., the Christian church decided to make November 2 the “All Souls Day” a special holyday in which to honor the dead and pray for their souls. This celebration resembled the Celtic Samhain in many ways, and the night before this day was called “The All-Hallows Eve”, which later become “Halloween”. On this evening, the Irish (the descendents of the Celts) gave food (special “soul cakes”) to beggars in exchange for their prayers for the dead. It was believed that prayer and good deeds could help the spirits of the dead find their way to heaven.
The Irish also carved small lanterns from turnips or potatoes on Halloween, commemorating a wicked Irish villain who was so bad that when he died neither Heaven nor Hell wanted to take him. The legend said that he was forced to wander around in a continuous search for a place to rest and he only had a lit rotten turnip to give him some warmth.
Later, the Irish found themselves forced to immigrate to the Americas, when the famous Irish Potato Famish struck them in 1845-1850. This large wave of immigrants took the Halloween traditions with them to the other side of the ocean, but didn’t find turnips to carve and light. Instead, they found larger, more easy to carve pumpkins and decided that they would make a perfect replacement. The “Halloween seed” was planted in the American soil, but it took it quite some while to become a national holiday. It was only in the mid 20th century that the mystical night started to become a holiday celebrated by the entire country. Its religious significance gradually faded away, but the mystical component never disappeared.
Needless to say that today the whole world knows about Halloween, and many countries celebrate it as well. Even though it no longer has any religious relevance to us today (well, except for Celtic NeoPagans and Celtic Reconstructionists ,that is), Halloween is observed by millions of people every year. Children go trick-or-treating, adults go to costume parties … basically everyone has fun on the black-and-orange night!