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The European Roots of American Halloween

November 1, 2017

Halloween has become a traditional American holiday consisting of dressing up in costume, pranks, superstitions, and trick-or-treating. While this Americanized holiday in recent years expanded internationally, this seemingly ‘American’ holiday and its various festivities have European roots. While many think Halloween came from the Days of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, Latin America and Spain, Halloween actually comes from the Celtic holiday Samhain (sow-in).samhain

The Celts lived over 2,000 years ago in the area that is present day Ireland, U.K, and northern France. Their new year began on Nov 1st and was celebrated the night before with Samhain. Samhain literally translates to summer’s end, and is a festival of the dead that celebrated the end of the harvest and the beginning of a dark, cold winter which, during that time, was associated with human death. The Celts believed that on this night, October 31st, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. Therefore, in order to ward off ghosts, they would light bonfires and wear costumes. During the festival they also burned animals as sacrifice and left crops and wine on their doorsteps for the Celtic deities. They also believed that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for Celtic priests to make predictions about the future, adding to the mystic atmosphere and superstitions that surround Halloween today.

festivle s

During the eighth century, the Christian church wanted to change the Celts’ religious practice and tried replacing Samhain with All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows. This rebranding failed, however, and Christians then deemed November 2nd All Souls’ Day to celebrate the dead. All Saints’ Day then became the festival to honor any saint who did not already have a day of his or her own and the mass on this day was called Allhallowmas (the mass of all those who are hallowed). The night before became known as All Hallows Eve, and eventually morphed into what we call Halloween.

As European immigrants came to America, they brought their Halloween customs with them. The first festivities were held to celebrate the harvest; neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common. The wine and food for Celtic deities at the doorstep were eventually replaced with bowls of candy and carved pumpkins that resemble the crop sacrifices of the Celts.

old costumes

The practice of trick-or-treating was borrowed by Americans from old Irish and English traditions where poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling”, was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food and money. They began to dress in costume while practicing this tradition and in 1939, the phrase “trick or treat” appeared for the very first time.trick or treat


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