The Elusive History of Halloween

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Turns out that trying to trace the history of Halloween is no treat. Actually, it’s kind of tricky.

Even the most basic question, “When did it begin?” is a mystery. One source says the holiday has been traced back to the 5th century BC in Ireland. Another says the Middle Ages. And, when exactly were they?

Well, depending on whom you want to believe – and there is no consensus among historians and educators – the era extended from 1000 to 1300BC. Or a not-even-close 476 to 1453. Or from 1066 to 1500 or any of dozens of other spans of time you can dig up in an hour’s research with the biggest number of votes going to 500 to 1500C or the more inclusive 300 to 1600. Take your pick.

Despite the secular nature of Halloween as practiced in the U.S. now, the holiday has pagan and religious roots. According to, a site with a Biblical focus, “Many believe the festival of Samhain to have been the beginning of the Celtic year. At Samhain, farmers brought livestock in from summer pastures and people gathered to build shelters for winter, “according to the site.

The festival, did, however, also have religious significance and people burned fruits, vegetables, grain, and possibly animals as offerings to the gods. In ancient Celtic stories, Samhain was . . . a time when the barriers between the natural world and the supernatural were broken. The Celts believed that the dead could walk among the living at this time.”

Some say the holiday was a harvest celebration and the start of the dark part of the year. Others say trick-or-treating dates back to the medieval practice of souling, when poor people went door to door on Hallowmas, now All Saints Day on November 1, receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2). Other sites say the holiday has no pagan origins at all.

Throughout history, there has been backlash against the holiday for all sorts of reasons. In post-Reformation England, All Saints Day and its vigil were suppressed and the Celtic customs of the day outlawed. Puritan America certainly turned its back on any possible celebration, and more recently, Pope Benedict XVI called the holiday “anti-Christian and dangerous,” according to the UK’s Daily Mail. The holiday also took a beating in the 1980s when there were news reports of razor blades and other dangerous items found in treats.

Early celebrations in the U.S. were public events held to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors gathered to share tales of the dead, repeat ghost stories, and tell each other’s fortunes.

The Irish immigrants popularized the celebration nationally. Extracting from the traditions of the Irish and English, early Americans began to dress up in costume asking for food or money, a practice that morphed into today’s trick or treat.

Today Halloween is a commercial event whose adornments start showing up in stores about the same time that shelves get stocked with school supplies. The kids going door to door, the adults partying (on a business trip I witnessed a Halloween wedding, the guests decked out in full regalia), the principals leading school parades, and the storekeepers who have treats for the town’s kids do not associate it in any way with a religious or anti-religious point of view.

With all respect to those who view the day as anti-Christian because of associations with the occult and other reasons, I think most people view the days as an orange, cupcaked, carved-pumpkin opportunities to scarf down as much candy as possible before their parents confiscate the booty.

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