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A Brief History of Halloween

Halloween is an all-American holiday celebrated yearly on October 31st. Kids look forward to dressing up and receiving free candy and many adults use it as an excuse to party and bake festive treats. Halloween traditions date back from a number of practices but there are a few key traditional celebrations that formed the Halloween we celebrate today.

In ancient times, Celts used September 1st to mark their new year; it was the end of summer and harvest, meaning it was the start of the long cold winter. These harsh winters and short days were often associated with death because it wasn’t uncommon for many to not make it through the difficult winter. So on this day of transition from summer to winter, it was believed that the boundary between the living world and dead world were most closely aligned. The night before the new year was to begin; October 31st the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain

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Depiction of ancient druids

During the days surrounding Samhain, spirits were blamed for a lot of the people’s hardships, such as damaging crops or stealing/misplacing precious goods. Celts would put their trust into Druids and Celtic priests to be close to these spirits and make predictions about the future. Druids would build sacred bonfires and people would gather in hopes of having their futures determined. These bonfires were huge celebrations that while donning costumes, Celts would burn crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic deities.

The Roman Empire conquered Celtic territory around 43 A.D. and throughout their hundreds of years of ruling the two cultures would intermingle to create a tradition very similar to Samhain. Roman celebration of Feralia and Pomona would translate to a combined celebration of the dead, harvest, and other-worldly beings in late October.

In 1000 A.D. the Christian church proclaimed November 2nd as ‘All Souls’ Day’ as a day to honor the deceased. This was an attempt to replace the Celtic festival with a more puritanical practice.

All Souls Day generally got accepted because many of its festivities were similar enough to Samhain. This included bonfires, parades, and dressing up; although costumes such as saints and angels were more highly encouraged. Over the years the celebration would start to be referred to as All-Hallowmas or All-Hallows with the night before being All-Hallows eve. Which as we know, eventually got shortened to Halloween.

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Modern day Christians celebrating All Souls’ Day

With Christian endorsement of the holiday it slowly trickled over to different parts of England and Europe but struggled at first to make its way to colonial New England. Early settlers had radical Protestant beliefs and didn’t traditionally believe it was a celebration that represented their nation. As time went on, Halloween was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies.

Know as the melting pot, many cultures began to come together to create the early American version of Halloween. American Indians and European immigrants celebrated in various ways and it became popular to have fall community events. Including productions of plays, harvest festivals, storytelling, and playing games that told of the future. Annual fall festivities had become common by the middle of the nineteenth century but it was uncommon for these celebrations to be thought of as Halloween.

By the second half of the nineteenth century millions of Irish were coming to America to flee the Potato Famine. Their presence in America is widely attributed to causing Halloween to becoming a nationally celebrated holiday.

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Girl in a Halloween costume in 1928

In the 1920’s and 30’s Halloween was still often considered to be a community-centered holiday. Regardless of efforts to keep up the festivities, vandalism and trickery began to make the celebrations not feel welcoming to all members of the community. In an effect to change this many town leaders started to cater the events more towards children and with this shift many events began to occur mainly in schools or at ones home.

Around the 1950’s trick or treating was revived as a way of attempting to create an event that the entire community could still share. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.


This is the final post of our 13 days of Halloween series. Checkout our other spooky posts:

  1. Washington Ghost Stories
  2. Out of Place Artifacts
  3. Henry Rathbone
  4. Charon and the Journey to Hades
  5. Post-Mortem Photography
  6. All Hallows Eve Divination Games
  7. Saved By The Bell and other Idioms
  8. Halloween Coins
  9. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Coins Connecting You to the Spirit World
  11. Ancient Egyptian Alien Coins
  12. Superstitions Around the World
  13. A Brief History of Halloween

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