History of Halloween

Real Estate

History of Halloween

The U.S. Census estimates there are 41 million trick-or-treaters, ages 5 to 14, and over 117 million houses which to trick-or-treat. There are over 1300 companies that produce chocolate goodies worth over $14 billion a year. Americans spend almost $8 Billion a year on Halloween costumes, decorations, and candy and the average person will spend about $93 with about a third of that going toward candy. Halloween’s popularity continues to grow and is now considered the second most popular holiday behind Christmas. Since it is such a popular holiday I thought it might be useful to understand the roots of Halloween and why it continues to endure.


Halloween’s originates date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived about 2,000 years ago in the area that we now know as Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year to mark the end of summer and the beginning of winter. Winter was a very difficult time of year when the young and weak often did not survive. Therefore, winter was associated with death and the Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On October 31, the night before they celebrated Samhain, it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. They believed that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, the Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. The Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. The Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

The Roman Empire conquered much of the Celtic territory around 43 A.D. During their 400-year occupation two Roman festivals commingled with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally recognized the passing of the dead and the second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The apple symbolizes Pomona and is thought to be the source of “bobbing for apples” that is practiced today. The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. It was common to believe that on Halloween ghosts would come back to the earthly world where they may be encountered.  To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks so they would be mistaken for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter.

In 609 A.D. Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to honor all Christian martyrs and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established. Pope Gregory III later expanded this festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs and moved the observance from May 13 to November 1. By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with the older Celtic practices. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, to honor the dead. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.


Halloween took a while to take hold in America due to the conservative Protestant beliefs in New England. A unique American version of Halloween emerged as the beliefs and customs the European settlers meshed with the American Indians. The first celebrations included public events where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing, share ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846. In England 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 as a way 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.These Irish and English traditions influenced Americans to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.

In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to make Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. Later, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate and parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes. By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but a community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Due to the high numbers of young children during the 1950’s baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated.

Have a fun, safe, and wonderful Halloween!