This history behind Halloween is as old as the solstice celebrations themselves.
There are two solstices each year – winter solstice and summer solstice. The longest day of the year with most daylight happens on the summer solstice and the shortest day of the year with the least amount of daylight happens on the winter solstice.
In ancient Celtic lands (much of modern day Western and Central Europe), the Celts celebrated and honored their ancestral dead through Fire Festivals and Celtic years were divided into two halves, the light and the dark.
The festival that represented the summer's end, or beginning of the dark half, was known as Samhain (sow-en). It's counterpart, that celebrated the winter's end, or the light half, was known as Beltane.
Samhain was celebrated on November 1 and began the new cycle of seasons – the first day of winter. As such, Samhain was the ancient Celtic equivalent of today’s New Year's Eve.
On Samhain, past, present and future melted into one and time lost any meaning. It was believed that ghosts would be released from their graves and would walk among the living.
Celtic priests, known as Druids, used divination practices on Samhain Eve such as animal sacrifice and reading omens in the sky, water and fire to determine if they should migrate, if they could make magic or if they could cure sickness. But with a lack of written history, particular details of the Druids’ exact rituals will never be fully known or understood.
It seems that Halloween's associations with ghosts, fortunetelling and fire probably started with these pagan tribes some 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.
Interestingly enough, Samhain was celebrated around the same time as the uniquely Roman celebration of Pomona – the goddess of fruit and orchards. Many ancient traditions from these two festivals were likely intermingled after the Romans invaded the Celtic lands around AD43.
As a result of Christianity sweeping through the Roman Empire, the ancient Celtic and Roman traditions were modified to include Christian beliefs and traditions so church holidays took the place of Samhain: All Hallows' or All Saints' Day celebrated on November 1 and then centuries later, All Souls' Day celebrated on November 2 – but the essence of these ancient celebrations survived.
With the passage of time, All Hallows Eve became known as All Hallowe'en and eventually it was shortened to just, Halloween.
The nations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales kept their ancient November eve traditions alive through games and cultural norms. They did this by using apples (or nuts) for fortunetelling instead of animal sacrifice or omens in the sky, and they asked spirits about love rather than how to survive.
During the Protestant Revolt, or Reformation, these traditional celebrations lapsed because anything resembling Catholic beliefs were tossed out by the Protestants. As a result, Halloween became a distant memory among the extreme English Puritans who settled in America.
Halloween was introduced to the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries through Irish and Scottish immigration. Other immigrant groups also played a role in adding their own cultural layers: Germans introduced graphic witchcraft lore, the Haitian and Africans brought their own voodoo beliefs about fire, black cats and witchcraft; and the Dutch and English shared their love of masquerade through masks and elaborate costumes.
By the time the 19th century rolled around, Halloween in America was as diverse as the country itself. The state of New Hampshire celebrated Halloween with barn dances and traditional folk music and dancing. New York city held parades. The residents of Louisiana prepared a Dumb Supper at midnight where the table was set (including the empty seats) and the meal and drink was shared with ancestors as a display of love and respect.
Entering the 20th century, the celebration and festivities of Halloween were surrendered to the children.
From the 50s through 70s, Halloween was synonymous with trick or treating and nearly all children in the United States celebrated Halloween with costumes and trick or treating both at school and in their own neighborhood. Read more about the history of trick-or-treating.
Adults eventually rejoined the festivities and by the end of the 80s, Halloween in America had swelled into the second largest retail holiday, right behind Christmas.
But the concept of Halloween as we celebrate it today is barely two decades old. With the passage of more than 2,000 years and countless changes in tradition, the mystical nature and lore of Halloween still captivates us all.
Learn more about Halloween Around The World