The Origins of Halloween

Photo by steve mcnicholas, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by steve mcnicholas, Flickr Creative Commons

Happy Halloween everyone! Finally, the day has arrived when you get to dress up however you want. Maybe months of planning even went into your costume, your creativity shining through. But did you ever wonder why we celebrate Halloween? Where did this idea of dressing up and asking for candy come from? Why are bats and spiders symbols of spookiness, and why do we carve pumpkins?

It is thought that Halloween dates back 2,000 years to the Celts who lived in what is now Ireland and the United Kingdom. The Celts had a festival of Samhain, which celebrated their new year on November 1. The night before the new year was the time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and ghosts returned to earth. Additionally, this was prime time for Celtic priests to make predictions about the future. So, they built big bonfires and wore costumes in their fortune-telling rituals.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and Christianity is also thought to have influenced Halloween. Around 609 AD the church established All Hallows’ Day (also known as All Saints Day) on November 1and All Souls Day on November 2. The celebration the night before, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. These three days were a time to honor the saints and the recently departed souls who went to Heaven.

The practice of trick-or-treating probably dates back to the days of celebrating All Souls Day in England. Poor people would beg for food from families and in return they would pray for the family’s dead relatives. Halloween came to America in the second half of the nineteenth century, when new Irish and English immigrants came to America. With them came these Halloween traditions.

The history of Halloween it is rich in tradition, folklore, and the idea of celebration. But each story seems to stem from a connection between people and the earth or natural world. So whatever you choose to do tonight and whatever you dress up as, remember that origin of Halloween and celebrate that connection between us and nature.

For some suggestions on what to do with children on Halloween in the forest, read my blog, Exploring the Forest at Night!

About the author

Deborah joined the League's staff in 2013 as the Education & Interpretation Manager. She brings with her extensive experience teaching science, developing curriculum and connecting kids to the natural world.

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