How did Halloween start? As holidays and celebrations go, Halloween is truly one-of-a-kind. Unlike other significant holidays on the calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, which combine pagan and Christian traditions, Halloween is essentially divided in half, with a secular or pagan festival on the night of October 31 and a solemn religious observance on November 1. Around this time, people start thinking about their Halloween fashion, like wearing Halloween charms and their main Halloween look.
Most people who want to know how did Halloween start and celebrate Halloween today have no idea about the Catholic roots of the holiday; in contrast to Valentine’s Day, which has remained essentially unchanged for at least a century, Halloween has undergone numerous iterations over the years.
It has been a harvest festival, a night of mystery for young adults, an autumnal party for adults, a costumed begging ritual for children, a time to explore fears in a safe environment, and, most recently, a heavily commercialized product exported by the United States to the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, Halloween also holds the dubious honor of being the most demonized holiday: Christian groups label it “The Devil’s Birthday,” authorities worry about its impact on public safety, and nationalist leaders worldwide condemn its importation for allegedly clashing with their traditions.
Even though some of these worries may have some basis in reality, they all stem from a history that mixes fact with confusion and error. Historical accounts of Halloween tend to be less concerned with precision and more interested in dramatic and gloomy ramblings, perhaps because of the macabre associations the holiday has always had.
Trick or Treating
Even though Halloween has been celebrated for centuries, it is only within the last three decades that historians, folklorists, and authors have given it serious attention.
Despite the short period, the day’s identity has changed, making it challenging to compile a comprehensive and up-to-date overview. Even in its primary home, the United States, the industries spawned by Halloween are beginning to expand beyond mere October celebrations. This growth has occurred within the last year alone. As a result, Halloween is evolving into something more than a (primarily American) date on the calendar.
It was in 1762 that Charles Vallancey, a British military engineer, was dispatched to Ireland to conduct a survey. But Vallancey wasn’t your typical engineer; he was also extremely well-read in history and linguistics, maintained correspondence with many of the foremost advocates of the vogue Orientalism of the time, and considered himself a scholar and writer.
As his interest in the history and culture of ancient Ireland’s Celts grew, he compiled hundreds of pages of data, anecdotes, and conjecture about the people who first settled on the green isle.
The only catch was that much of what Vallancey wrote down was inaccurate.
Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) was the name given to the three-day Celtic New Year celebration that began at sunset on October 31 and lasted until November 2.
According to the author, Samhain is a Celtic deity also known as “balsab… for Bal is lord, and Sab death,” even though other linguists have recorded the translation of “summer’s end.”
The fact that the name “Balsab” is not found anywhere else in Celtic mythology and that Vallancey’s work was mocked even during his lifetime is critical here. Yet, somehow, Vallancey’s writing made its way onto the library shelves across Britain, contributing to a romanticized conception of a Druidic sacrifice.
How Did Halloween Start: Alternative Versions of Its History
After 2000 years, in 1950, Halloween was still called “the misunderstood holiday.” Christian groups in the early 1990s urged parents across the United States to discourage their children from celebrating Halloween because it was a time when people were burned to worship the lord of Death. The writings of a romantic who was criticized in 1818 for producing “more nonsense than any man of his time” is being used to condemn a significant celebration; this begs the question of why.
How is it that so few people know how Halloween started, but it has become the second most celebrated in the United States?
No other holiday is as poorly understood as Halloween.
Almost everyone who speaks English can explain the meaning of “Christmas”; the same is valid for St. Patrick’s Day, and holidays with specific nouns, such as New Year’s and Father’s Day, don’t call for any exceptional linguistic prowess either. Unfortunately, however, surprisingly few people can explain even the basics of the name “Halloween” and its meaning.
The Celts, whose Samhain festival served as the inspiration for Halloween, also left a legacy of mystery and obscurity. Because they didn’t keep any written records, surprisingly, little is known about them. Much of what the civilized world knows about the Celts in Ireland comes from legends passed down orally (much of which was written down by Christian monks in the first millennium) and pieces of archaeological evidence found here and there.
It’s not surprising that authors with a more incredible view of history, like Vallancey, envisioned primitive people who built enormous bonfires every fall to drive away evil spirits and sacrificed humans to demons.
By the middle of the 20th century, historians had made yet another error in their understanding of Halloween, claiming that it was inspired partly by a nonexistent Roman festival called Pomona. During the ’60s, urban legends about Halloween, led by the infamous ‘razor blade in the apple,’ grew to the point where they were practically a religion.
Some of these myths suggested that innocent young children were at risk during the beloved trick-or-treat ritual, although no recorded instances of real cases lay behind these modern myths.
Warnings of murders committed on October 31 as part of a gang’s initiation ceremony have been linked to Halloween and Satanic cults offering up black cats as sacrifices. However, pranks and tricks have been an integral part of Halloween celebrations for hundreds of years, and it may seem that this mischievous spirit has seeped into and tampered with the holiday’s origins.
Four things can’t be denied about Halloween. The first is that it has a wealthy pagan and Christian heritage. Second, it has traditionally been a harvest festival because of its timing at the end of autumn and the start of winter. Third, it has always had a sad, even morbid, quality because of its connection to other festivals of the dead worldwide. Finally, as you might expect from a holiday that originated as a pagan New Year’s celebration and a joyful harvest feast, it has also always been celebrated with parties and mischief.
The Celtic Holiday of Samhain
The ancient Celts, frequently misidentified, are an excellent place to begin any investigation into the origins and evolution of Halloween’s many misconceptions.
The Celts were called Keltoi by Greek and Roman authors (and perhaps by the Celts themselves), and this name is likely derived from the Indo-European word for ‘hidden’ (Kel-), making the Celts literally ‘the hidden people. They once dominated much of Europe and the British Isles, and by 400 b.c. they had occupied Rome for a time. The picture of the Celts and their Druid priests painted by many of Vallancey’s contemporaries made his ideas seem peaceful in comparison.