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A Halloween History

by CLARE FLANAGAN and ANNA FISCHER - The history behind your favorite spooky holiday.

Ah, the infamous 31st of October. That Thursday you waited anxiously for school to let out, all while thinking of what might lay in store that night. You rushed home as soon as the final bell rang. The second the sun went down- you, your family, and your neighbors gathered around outside and lit a huge bonfire. Of course, this is the part where you connect with the spirits, maybe tell some fortunes, perhaps offer up a sacrifice or two. Oh… no? Not quite? Well, maybe that’s not how we celebrate Halloween in 2019, but prophecies and bonfires were all the rage when the holiday first began.

Samhain: The Original Halloween

Nearly two thousand years ago in Europe, there lived a pagan tribal group of people known as the Celts. The beginning of the long, cold winter marked the coming of the new year on November 1. The Celts believed that the night before the new year dawned the spirit world and the mortal world shifted and joined together. The presence of the spirits supposedly made it easier for the Celtic Priests, or Druids, to predict prophecies. So on every October 31st, the Celts would fling themselves into a frenzy of sacred bonfires and animal costumes and pray to the gods that the ghosts passing through would leave them in peace. (You know dead people, always trying to ruin the fun--and the crops). This ceremony was called Samhain and would be the foundation for modern Halloween.

Unfortunately, the Roman Empire did what the Roman Empire does best and conquered most of the Celtic lands by 43 A.D. The Romans were quick to reclaim the Samhain festivities as their own as days to honor some minor Roman goddesses. Of course nothing could completely erase the ancient Irish legend, even after the Roman Catholics come to convert the pagans.

All Names Change Day: The Catholics Intervene

Throughout the next few hundred years, Catholicism spread like the plague. Suddenly it was the Catholic Church calling the shots for Western Europe-- what used to be the Celtic territory. The year was then 607, and the Pope conveniently claimed November 1st (the day before Halloween) as a day to honor Christian saints and martyrs. This celebration was called Alholowmesse, which translates to “All Saints Day.” Samhain was still celebrated the day before, despite the efforts of the Catholic Church. However, the name was changed to “All Hallows Eve.”

R.I.P Potatoes, but at Least We Got Cool Traditions

1845 rolled around, and poor Ireland was struck hard by the Great Potato Famine. This caused a flood of Irish immigrants to come to the United States. By then, the United States had some harvest time spooky traditions, a mix of stories of Halloween and some Native American beliefs. With the surge in Irish culture, Halloween became a more popularized holiday. With a blend of more European traditions, children began to dress up in costumes and go door to door, asking for a treat or a trick--usually some sort of “witchcraft. Because of the strict religious communities and towns, people were told to disregard any real connections with death and witches until the holiday became more fun and much less superstitious. This leaves us with what we know and love today: Halloween.

Halloween, Schmalloween

Now you know a little history about Halloween… but so what? Besides maybe killing it at Spooky season trivia, who cares? It’s important to recognize where holiday traditions come from and how they came to be, especially when their history has been covered up and changed so many times. Samhain was a significant religious ceremony for an entire culture before foreign control claimed it for their own beliefs. Sure, now it’s a fun night to dress up and get sick on fun sized candy and spook your friends— and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's fun! But knowing the complicated history behind why it’s celebrated can offer a new perspective. Halloween is certainly not the only holiday with a complicated and covered up past.

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