The Origin of Halloween

The time of the year when everything’s a little extra spooky is here. Be it Michael Myer’s return to the big screens, or your own ghost stories.

Halloween brings with it many traditions that make it one of the most fun holidays of the year. The origin of this spooky holiday is, however, often overlooked. Halloween is believed to date back about 2000 years to a Celtic festival, Samhain. The Celtics celebrated their new year on November 1, symbolizing the beginning of the winter which was most commonly associated with death. They believed that on New Year’s Eve, the boundary between the worlds of the dead and the living overlapped, and the dead were thought to return to the land of the living. November 1 was designated to honor all saints and the previous night came to be known as All Hallows eve and eventually as Halloween.

Initially celebrated on the 13th of May, All Saints Day, was later moved to November 1st by Pope Gregory III and widely celebrated in western churches after the spread of Christianity among the Celtics. It was on this day the Celtics celebrated the saints who had transcended to heaven. This day was a celebration that followed all hallows eve, the night of October 31st, that celebrated the Christian martyrs.

Samhain traditions involved lighting huge sacred bonfires around which the people would gather and offer sacrifices whilst wearing costumes. Halloween as we know today doesn’t just stem from Celtic beliefs, after the Celtic territory had been conquered by the Roman empire, two Roman traditions were combined with the celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day on which the Romans commemorated the dead. The second was in honor of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and trees. Her favorite fruit was the apple which is believed to be the reason for its relevance in Halloween both in the dishes prepared and the tradition of bobbing for apples.

One of the most iconic signs of Halloween, the Jack O’Lantern, comes from an Irish tale of stingy Jack. The story is that a swindler, who was known to be manipulative and a rather big fan of alcohol, invited the devil himself to have a drink with him. As he was stingy, Jack could not bear the thought of paying for the drink himself and asked the devil to turn himself into a coin and when he did, placed him next to a silver cross. The devil, unable to return to his true form, made a deal with Jack, to leave him and his soul alone for 10 years in turn for his freedom. 10 years later, when the devil returned Jack tricks him once again by asking him to get a fruit from a tree and trapping the devil in the tree by inscribing a cross on the bark. Utterly humiliated, the devil agrees to leave Jack alone and to not return for his soul. When Jack eventually did die, the gates of both hell and heaven were closed to him. All that the devil gave his nemesis was a burning ember to light his dark path. Jack carved a turnip to place the ember in and his soul was destined to roam the netherworld for eternity. The carved turnip was replaced by the pumpkin by the Irish with time as it was easier to carve, which came to be known as the Jack O’Lantern.

A conversation on Halloween traditions would be incomplete without the mention of trick or treating, where children go door to door asking for candies from their neighbors who have a not so cheerful past. The tradition originates from the practice of the Celtics giving “soul cakes” to the less fortunate families that went from family to family asking for food.

The night of Halloween is when everyone dresses up in a costume of their choosing and for one night is whoever or whatever they want to be, a night when the world wears a facade. Initially, the Celtics dressed up as ghosts or demons as a part of the Samhain tradition in fear of the dead. On the night of Halloween when they believed the dead to return to earth, they feared going out of their homes. The costumes they wore were supposed to make the dead believe they were one of them and keep them unharmed. They even kept food outside their homes to appease the spirits and avoid entry into their homes. Sound familiar?

You may not light a huge bonfire or dress up as a ghost or even go trick or treating and instead just binge a day’s worth of horror movies but as long as the Halloween spirit lives on, these age-old traditions will be passed on.


Written by Nihal Shetty for MTTN

Edited by Asma Abidin for MTTN

Featured Image by Bruno Costa

Artwork by Billy Christian


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