Try to picture Halloween one or two thousand years ago—Snickers bars and Skittles would, unfortunately, not make an appearance. However, much of Halloween might not be as unfamiliar as you may think. Costumes, fires, seeking tokens door to door, and even a fear of ghosts would all be present. Though times and traditions have changed, the original sparks of Halloween in many ways still linger today
The history of Halloween dates back to the Celts who lived in modern day Ireland, the United Kingdom, and parts of France. For the Celts, the New Year began on November 1st, and so what we now know as Halloween would have been the ancient New Year’s Eve. November 1st, to the Celts, was a time to celebrate the close of the summer harvest and prepare for the cold months ahead. On the night before this important day, the Celts believed the barrier between the lands of the living and dead opened. On this night, our modern Halloween, they celebrated Samhein (pronounced sow-in), believing this night was especially fruitful for predicting the future. To this purpose, Celtic druids would build huge bonfires for the burning of sacrifices. The Celts wore costumes as they attended these fires—perhaps showing the origins of Halloween costumes.
On Samhein, the Celts believed fairies and other beings could also enter the world, some of which were harmful. Celts dressed up in order to evade these harmful spirits and fairies, which they believed were able to visit their homes. Feasts for the dead were also held. People would go door to door to seek food for these feasts or offerings for the night’s bonfires, a possible origin of trick-or-treating.
As Christianity came to the Celtic lands, the celebrating of Samhein began to mingle or at least coincide with the Christian holiday of All Saints Day or All Hallows Day and its accompanying All Hallows Eve. Holidays began to focus on remembering the saints and praying for the dead not yet in heaven. In this Christian tradition, the souls of the dead were also believed to wander on this evening. People would go door to door to collect soul cakes for the souls in purgatory—another likely predecessor to our modern trick-or-treating. To evade the deads’ vengeance, people sometimes wore costumes—a tradition, at least on the surface, that persists today. Further, jack-o-lanterns were made to represent souls in purgatory. Thus, a focus on spirits, door to door seeking, costume wearing, and lighted gourds have been a part of Halloween for centuries.