The Darkest History of Halloween

The holiday of Halloween is celebrated on October 31. In the United States, it is celebrated in various ways, including horror films in theaters, weekend house parties, and children trick-or-treating in the streets.

Its origin can be traced back to the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain when people lit bonfires and dressed up in costumes to fend off ghosts. 

Later, in the 9th century, Pope Gregory III of the Catholic Church declared November 1 All Saints Day. The two special holidays began to combine over time, and the roots of Halloween began to emerge.

All Hallow’s Eve is a name given to the evening before November 1. The name “Halloween” comes from the phrase “Allhallow-even,” which means “All-Holy (Hallow signifies holy) Evening.”

Trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, celebratory parties, donning costumes, and eating treats have become part of Halloween’s tradition.

Ancient Origins of Halloween

The word appears as the title of Robert Burns Halloween, 1785
The word appears as the title of Robert Burns Halloween, 1785

The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). 

The feast of Samhain, Lord of the Dead, was the most important religious day for the Druids. On November 1, the Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago, celebrated their new year.

Even though many monarchs ruled the Celts, the Druids held the real power behind the throne.

They were a murderous priestly order controlled via terror, magic, and witchcraft. Even the Celtic monarchs were terrified of their dark abilities.

This day signified the end of summer and harvest and the start of the dark, frigid winter, which connected with human death.

Celts thought that the line between the living and the dead blurred during the night before New Year’s Day.

They celebrated Samhain on October 31 when they thought that the spirits of the dead had returned to earth.

It was also when demons and wicked spirits emerged from the netherworld’s shadows.

These wicked spirits would cast spells, wreaking havoc on man and beast, and generally torture the living if people did not provide sufficient food, shelter, and supply. 

If a suitable “treat” were not available to soothe them, they would answer with a suitable “trick”—hence our custom of “trick or treating.”

Apart from causing havoc and destroying crops, Celts believed that the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier for Druids or Celtic priests to make future forecasts.

These forecasts were a source of consolation for people who were completely reliant on the turbulent natural environment during the long, dark winter.

Druids erected massive sacred bonfires to celebrate the festival, where people came to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods.

The Celts dressed up in animal heads and skins and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes during the festival.

They relit their hearth fires, which had been extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire after the festival to help protect them over the approaching winter.

Samhain honored breaking a barrier between the physical and spiritual worlds, why ghosts have become widespread Halloween lore.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the event evolved until Christianity absorbed it.

Should Christians celebrate Halloween?

Christians in some parts visit cemeteries to pray and place candles on their loved ones grave on Halloween
Christians in some parts visit cemeteries to pray and place candles on their loved ones’ graves on Halloween

The ancient celebration had nothing to do with Christianity and was based on Celtic beliefs about a pantheon of gods and spirits.

Over time, however, the church attempted to repurpose the feast to redeem it in some respects.

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For example, when Paul spoke to a Greek audience, he noticed a statue dedicated to an obscure god (Acts 17:22-31).

He repurposes this statue instead of chastising them for engaging in apparent idolatry by worshiping a pantheon of gods.

He informs them about an unfamiliar God and presents the Gospel to them.

Other secular items, such as statements from pagan philosophers and poets, are repurposed by Paul (Acts 17:28, 1 Cor 15:33, Titus 1:12). He brings people back to the Gospel every time he does this.

Christians might be able to recycle Halloween and use it for evangelistic purposes. They can hand out candy with Bible scriptures or host Trunk or Treat activities at their churches.

However, we must remember that Scripture also condemns witchcraft, demonic activity, divination, sorcery, and other Halloween-related practices.

If a Christian believes that their family should not participate in this holiday, they should act on that conviction.

All Saints’ Day

All Saints' Day at a cemetery in Gniezno, Poland
All Saints’ Day at a cemetery in Gniezno, Poland

Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to all Christian martyrs on May 13, 609 A.D., and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was instituted in the Western church.

Later, Pope Gregory III broadened the event to include all saints and martyrs and shifted it from May 13 to November 1.

By the 9th century, Christianity had expanded throughout Celtic territories, eventually blending with and displacing ancient Celtic ceremonies.

The church declared November 2, 1000 A.D., to be All Souls’ Day to honor the dead.

Today, it’s broadly assumed that the church aimed to replace the Celtic celebration of the dead with a church-approved event.

All Souls Day and Soul Cakes

Soul cakes eaten during Halloween
Soul cakes eaten during Halloween

All Souls’ Day was observed in the same way as Samhain, with large bonfires, parades, and people dressed up as saints, angels, and demons.

All Saints’ Day festival was also known as All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse, which means All Saints’ Day).

The night before it, Samhain in Celtic religion became known as All-Hallows Eve and Halloween.

Poor people would beg for food during the festivities, and families would offer them “soul cakes” in exchange for their vow to pray for the family’s deceased relatives.

The church promoted the distribution of soul cakes to replace the historical practice of leaving food and drink for wandering spirits.

The tradition, known as “going a-souling,” was eventually adopted by youngsters, who would visit their neighbors’ homes and receive ale, food, and money.

To keep ghosts away from their homes on Halloween, folks would leave bowls of food outside their doors to please the spirits and deter them from attempting to enter.

History of Trick-or-Treating

A child dressed as a skeleton trick or treating in Redford, Michigan
A child dressed as a skeleton trick or treating in Redford, Michigan

Taking inspiration from European customs, Americans began dressing up in costumes and going door to door asking for food or money, a practice that evolved into the “trick-or-treat” ritual we know today. 

Young ladies believed that by performing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors on Halloween, they could discern the name or appearance of their future husbands.

In the late 1800s, there was a push in America to make Halloween more about community and neighborly gatherings than ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. 

Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most popular method to commemorate the occasion around the century. Games, seasonal cuisine, and colorful costumes were the parties’ emphasis.

Newspapers and community leaders urged parents to remove anything “frightening” or “grotesque” from Halloween celebrations.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Halloween had lost most of its superstitious and religious connotations due to these efforts.

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Halloween Parties

The annual New York Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village, Manhattan
The annual New York Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village, Manhattan

Halloween had evolved into a secular but community-centered event by the 1920s and 1930s, with parades and town-wide Halloween festivities as the main attractions.

Vandalism began to plague some festivals in many localities at this time, despite the best efforts of many schools and communities.

Town officials had successfully restricted damage by the 1950s, and Halloween had developed into a festivity aimed primarily at children. 

Because of the enormous number of small children during the 1950s baby boom, celebrations shifted from town civic buildings to classrooms or homes, where they could be accommodated more readily.

The centuries-old tradition of trick-or-treating revived between 1920 and 1950. Trick-or-treating was a low-cost way for a whole community to participate in the Halloween celebration. 

In theory, families may also prevent tricks from being played by presenting little presents to the neighborhood kids.

As a result, a new American custom was formed, and it has grown ever since.

Halloween matchmaking and lesser-known rituals

1904 Halloween greeting card, young woman hopes to catch a glimpse of her future husband
1904 Halloween greeting card, a young woman hopes to catch a glimpse of her future husband

Many of these out-of-date rites were centered on the future rather than the past and the living rather than the dead. 

Many of them had to assist young women in identifying their prospective spouses and promising them that they would marry someday—hopefully by next Halloween.

On Halloween night in 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook may bury a ring in her mashed potatoes, believing that the diner who discovered it would find true love.

In Scotland, fortune-tellers advised an eligible young woman to name her suitors a hazelnut and then hurl the nuts into the fireplace. 

According to legend, the nut burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding symbolized the girl’s future husband.

(According to specific versions of the folklore, the nut that burned away indicated a love that would not last.)

Young women tossed apple peels over their shoulders in the hopes of finding their future husbands’ initials on the floor; tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water; and stood in front of mirrors in darkened rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for their husbands’ faces.

Some rituals were more competitive than others. The first guest to uncover a burr on a chestnut search at some Halloween parties would be the first to marry.

The first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle at other times.

Black cats and Ghosts on Halloween

Black Cat At Halloween by Daniel Eskridge
Black Cat At Halloween by Daniel Eskridge

Halloween has long been a celebration steeped in lore, magic, and folklore. Today’s Halloween ghosts are frequently depicted as more terrifying and evil, and our traditions and superstitions are also more frightening.

We avoid black cats because we are scared they will bring us bad luck. This belief dates back to the Middle Ages when many believed witches disguised themselves as black cats to evade detection.

Cats were once the most revered animals in the animal kingdom due to the Egyptians, but their popularity began to fade in the Middle Ages when people began to link them with witches. 

As the dread of witchcraft spread across Europe at breakneck speed, older women suspected of being witches frequently cared for stray cats. 

Single, older women were accused of witchcraft and of having the ability to shift into black cats.

Spiders and Halloween

Halloween Spider Makeup
Halloween Spider Makeup

On Halloween, spiders can have both a comforting and frightening connotation. According to one legend, witches are present if a candle or a flame consumes a spider. 

But it’s not all bad: spotting a spider on Halloween could indicate that an ancestor’s spirit is visiting you to see how you’re doing.

Role of witches in Halloween

Being a witch has not always been regarded as a positive trait in the United States. On the other hand, Witches were an integral component of Samhain in Celtic times.

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A pagan goddess is known as “the crone,” also known as “the earth mother,” and the “old ones,” who were essential during the harvesting season, are one of the origins of the modern Halloween witch. 

However, this ancient goddess melded with other pre-Christian notions of witches as malicious or bloodthirsty over time.

Bats as Halloween Symbols

Halloween symbols, Drawings
Halloween symbols, Drawings

Bats are connected with Halloween for many reasons — they’re nocturnal, and thanks to Bram Stoker, they have a slew of frightening vampiric connections — but there are also old folk beliefs about them.

One urban legend claimed that seeing a bat fly about one’s house three times signaled that someone in the house would die shortly. 

This is most likely derived from an old Roman notion, according to Pliny the Elder, that carrying a bat three times around your house will protect you from bad luck.

According to the Library of Congress, a bat flying inside the house was also thought to foreshadow a person’s death, especially if it landed on one individual. 

(It doesn’t appear that the fact that bats can bring a variety of deadly diseases is incorporated into this beautiful bit of mythology.)

Halloween costumes

Girl in a Halloween costume in 1928, Ontario, Canada
Girl in a Halloween costume in 1928, Ontario, Canada

According to the Museum of Arts & Sciences, the genesis of the Halloween costume may have a practical function – to blend in with spirits. 

Celtic people believed that during Samhain, they had a more remarkable ability to interact with the spirit realm, but not everyone thought this was a good idea, so they tried to blend in with them instead. You’d be more likely to be left alone if you looked like a spirit.

Another explanation proposed by the Library of Congress is that costumes permitted people to make problems, beg for food, and generally act in ways they wouldn’t typically do without fear of being recognized.

They weren’t fleeing from ghosts; they were fleeing from snobby neighbors.

Conclusion

It’s no surprise that Halloween has a rich, complex, and enigmatic past as (perhaps) the most fascinatingly odd festival there is. 

Thanks to all the candy intake, dress-up chances, mischief-making, and dark side dabbling, the event is traced back to an ancient Celtic festival. It only gets more complicated from there.

The custom dates back to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain when people lit bonfires and dressed up in costumes to fend off ghosts.

On November 1, druids erected massive sacred bonfires to celebrate the festival, where people came to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. 

It signaled the end of summer and harvest and the start of the dark, frigid winter, a season connected with human death.

Celts thought that the line between the living and the dead blurred during the night before New Year’s Day.

They celebrated Samhain on October 31 when they thought that the spirits of the dead had returned to earth. 

They relight their hearth fires, which had been extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire after the festival to help protect them over the approaching winter.

Taking inspiration from European customs, Americans began dressing up in costumes and going door to door asking for food or money, a practice that evolved into the “trick-or-treat” ritual we know today. 

Halloween had evolved into a secular but community-centered event by the 1920s and 1930s, with parades and town-wide Halloween festivities as the main attractions.

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