Why exactly are you buying piles of candy, carving pumpkins, and staying up late sewing children’s costumes every October? For New Year’s, it turns out. Two thousand years ago, October 31st was New Year’s Eve in Europe.
Only it wasn’t called Halloween then; it was called Samhain, the festival that started the night before New Year’s Day, November 1st on the Celtic calendar. Anywhere the Celts were — England, Ireland, Scotland, and France — the festival marked the turn of the season from autumn to winter. It was a big, ancient harvest party, complete with bonfires and lots of treats.
The Druids — Celtic priests — were convinced October 31st was one of those times of the year the line between this world and the spirit world was pretty thin, or disappeared altogether. So the Druids started the tradition of dressing in costumes that night — to outwit the spirits of the dead who were supposed to be hovering around.
Then the Romans conquered the Celts around 43 AD and ran things in France and Britain for the next 400 years or so. They combined their two autumn festivals with Samhain. One of them, Feralia, was held in late October and also honored the dead. The other honored Pomona, the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees — bringing apples into the Halloween act. Then the Romans folded and went back to Italy, but the October 31st Samhain-Feralia-Pomona festival remained.
When early Christianity took hold of Northern Europe around the 800s, the festival changed. Wild harvest partying was frowned upon. The early church declared November 1 a holy day called All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day to honour saints. Like Halloween, All Saints Day is still on the calendar today.
All Hallows Day started when the sun went down October 31st: All Hallows Eve. Which, when people were saying it, turned into Hallows’eve or Hallow’e’en, then Halloween.
Meanwhile, kids got into the act — going door-to-door that night. They carried carved beets, potatoes or turnips with candles inside to light the way — the first jack-o-lanterns. They knocked on doors, offering to pray for the dead of the family in the house, in return for food. In some places they got little shortbread cakes or scones or pastries called “soul cakes” in return. This was the start of trick-or-treating.
Like many American party traditions, Halloween came across the ocean hundreds of years later when the Irish Catholics flocked to North America after the great potato famine of the 1840s and introduced Halloween. In case any of the ghosts had a bone to pick with you, that costume just might fool them. Everyone stuck together in their costumes in big groups by big outdoor bonfires on that spooky night.
Halloween has only grown exponentially from there. Millions are spent on Halloween annually in decorations, costumes, and of course candy. While Halloween isn’t everyone’s favourite holiday, I don’t see it going anywhere anytime soon.
Hershey’s would never allow it.