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


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.


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.


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

Largest Celtic Coin Hoard Finally Separated


After nearly three years of intensive conservation efforts, the largest Celtic hoard discovered to date has been separated.


Conservation team lead Neil Mahrer said, “This is a significant milestone for the team. It has been painstaking but thoroughly intriguing work, which has delivered some very unexpected and amazing finds along the way. There is still plenty to do and I am sure the Hoard will continue to surprise us as we clean and record the material.”


coin_mass.jpg__1072x0_q85_upscaleAmateur metal detectorists Reg Mead and Richard Miles found the hoard in 2012, but it was not a surprise find. 30 years ago, a local woman mentioned that her father had found some Celtic silver in the field in Jersey, and the pair believed there was more to be found. According to Reg Mead, “She told me that in the bottom was an earthenware pot and it shattered all over the field on a very muddy winter’s day and there were silver coins everywhere. They filled a small potato sack up and the rest of the stuff they just ploughed into the ground. When she described them we knew they were Iron Age. I told Richard and we have been searching hard all that time.” However, the farmer who owned the field only let them detect in it once a year, for about 10-15 hours, after his harvest was finished.


Thirty years of patience paid off when the two found several coins, and upon digging deeper, came across a chunk of earth with several coins embedded in it. Rather than excavating it themselves, the two wanted to make sure the archaeological context remained intact, and called in the experts.


torc_coins_2.jpg__1072x0_q85_upscale.jpgNamed Catillon II, the hoard contained over 68,000 coins, far more than any other Celtic find to date. The collection also contains gold torcs, leather goods, glass beads, and many other non-numismatic items. Historians believe it was buried around 30-50 BCE, during the rule of Julius Caesar. It was probably buried by French Celts fleeing Roman invasion. The government of Jersey must now decide whether they will pay to keep the hoard on the island, or allow it to be sold. It is valued at around 10 million pounds.


(All photos copyright Jersey Heritage.)

Trick or Treat: A not so brief history

The tradition of trick or treating on Halloween night is long standing.  In fact, it is so common place that most years pass without a second thought to where this odd ritual came from.  For one night, we encourage our children to dress up in costume, wander around a dark neighborhood, and ask strangers for candy.  Seems odd if you attempt to apply logic.

It turns out the concept of trick or treating has a somewhat long and complicated history.  Modern day trick or treating is actually a combination of traditions from Celtic and Christian traditions.  Toss in a British guy named Guy Fawkes, the Great Depression, candy companies raking in dough and, BAM! Let’s all go trick or treating.

The beginnings:

Celtic people (in power from 750 BC to 12 BC) celebrated
the new year on November 1.  It was thought that on this day, the world of the dead would overlap the world of the living, allowing spirits to once again roam the earth.  Not all of these spirits were good spirits, so people used to dress up like evil spirits in hopes that any real evil spirits would pass right by them, thinking they were real.  This tradition was called the festival of Samhain.


A newer version:

By the time the 9th century rolled around, Christians had taken over most of the celtic lands.  They adopted their own version of the festival of Samhain.  They called it all souls day and moved the celebration to November 2.  On this day, Children and some poor people would go visit the houses of their wealthier neighbors, asking for pastries called soul cakes.  In exchange for the pastries, these poor people would offer up prayers or songs for the souls of the homeowners dead relatives.  This was called “souling.”  In order to stay somewhat aligned with the celtic tradition, people dressed up as either angels, saints or demons.  This was called “guising.”


Guy Fawkes:

Another step in the evolution of trick or treating comes from another British tradition, Guy Fawkes Day.  Guy Fawkes was accused and executed for his role in the gunpowder plot of 1605.  Fawkes (A Catholic), along with others planned to burn down the British Parliament building in order to remove King James I (A Protestant) from office.  The plan was foiled, and on November 5, 1606 Fawkes was executed.  Every year after, the people of Britain celebrated “Bonfire Night” by starting community bonfires and walking around the neighborhood asking for pennies using the phrase “May I have a penny for the Guy?”Guy_Fawkes_by_Cruikshank

The United States and the Great Depression:

The large number of people fleeing Ireland and Scotland due to the potato famine in 1840 helped popularize trick or treating here in America.  They brought with them the tradition of souling and guising.  By the 1920’s, the tradition was wrought with destruction, as young people began using that night as an excuse to get rowdy and cause mayhem.  Some cities saw upwards of $100,000 in damages on that night.  The phrase “Trick or Treat” was born during this time, as young people would perform pranks in exchange for candy.

This problem was worsened during the depression and communities began demanding change.  This is where the more community lead trick or treating events came from.  Neighborhoods, tired of vandalism, banded together to provide a fun evening of candy gathering for their kids while keeping an eye for anyone trying to cause mischief.


World War II:

When World War II began, so did sugar rationing.  This put a temporary end to trick or treating.  Once the ban was over, trick or treating was revived with new fervor.  Soon millions of kids all over the country were participating in the holiday, much to the joy of Candy Companies everywhere.

Today the tradition of Halloween is going strong, so strong in fact that it has become a 6 billion dollar industry.  Trick or treating continues to be a Halloween activity beloved by children nationwide, and who can blame them….Happy Halloween!

Sources: history.com, todayifoundout.com