A History of Halloween

By: Katherine Dvorack, NWHM Volunteer

Long before it was the mass marketed, slightly kitschy but always fun holiday we know and love today, Halloween was an ancient Celtic festival to the dead known as Samhain. The most important holiday on the Celtic calendar, Samhain marked the day when the veil between the living and the dead was at its weakest and the souls of those who passed during the year would journey to the underworld. Celebrated with bonfires and crop sacrifices, the festival marked the end of summer and the beginning of a long winter.

As with many pagan holidays, in an effort to convert Celts to Christianity, Samhain was appropriated by the Catholic Church in the early first century A.C.E. and renamed All Saints Day. But despite the Church’s best efforts, many of Samhain’s traditions and rituals remain. While the Church transformed the Celts’ pagan deities into malevolent spirits, people still left offerings for the dead and dressed up to appease the spirits. It was this mixing of beliefs that lead All Saints Day to become All Hallows Eve before finally becoming Halloween.

How Halloween evolved in America is, appropriately, a bit of a mystery. Starting in the early 20th century, Halloween-like postcards are developed and the first reference to an early form of trick-or-treating is mentioned in a 1920 newspaper article in Chicago, IL. But starting in the 1930’s Halloween began to take the shape we know now. Trick-or-treating became common and radio and TV programs began creating Halloween episodes until it was firmly embedded into American culture as a children’s holiday in the 1950’s.

Today Halloween is the second highest grossing commercial holiday behind Christmas with one quarter of all candy sales being made around Halloween. It’s also evolved beyond just a day for kids with costume parties, haunted houses and horror movies giving adults a chance to relive their childhood fears, let their imaginations run wild and, for one night a year, pretend to be anyone they want to be.

So, enjoy the candy and don’t forget to leave some out for the spirits on their journey to the underworld. Happy Halloween!

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As I mentioned above, Halloween is the one time of year we can dress up and pretend to be anyone we want to be. Which means this is a great opportunity to dress up as your favorite woman in history and when you inevitably get asked who your costume represents, you can share the story of an awesome woman who helped shape America. Check out NWHM’s biographies for suggestions.

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