It Has Celtic Roots
Halloween’s origins are surprisingly ancient, dating all the way back to the Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts lived 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France; they celebrated their new year on November 1. They believed that on the night before the new year, the realms of the living and the dead overlapped and ghosts returned to walk the earth. They also believed that the presence of these spirits made it easier for the Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the uncertain future. So on October 31, the Celts celebrated Samhain by extinguishing their hearth fires. The Druids then built huge sacred bonfires and burned crops and animal sacrifices. During the festivities, the Celts wore costumes and then later re-lit their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire.
It Was Influenced by the Catholic Church
When the Roman Empire conquered Celtic territories, their holidays – Feralia (a day in late October that commemorated the passing of the dead), and a day of honor for Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruit and trees – it’s thought that this is where apple bobbing originated) – combined with the Celtic celebration of Samhain. Later, when Christianity rose to prominence, it completely supplanted Celtic rites. In fact, it’s widely thought that the Church made November 2 All Souls’ Day (a day to honor the dead) in order to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a Church-sanctioned version. Early celebrations of All Souls’ Day shared many similarities with Samhain, including large bonfires and people dressing up in costumes (usually angels, saints, or devils). November 1 was christened All Saint's Day by the Church and was sometimes called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, with the night before it often being referred to as All-Hallows Eve, a name that eventually turned into what we know it as today: Halloween.
It Caught on in America...But Not Right Away
Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England due to Protestant beliefs (it was more common in Maryland and the southern colonies). Over time, the traditions of different European ethnic groups blended with those of Native Americans and a new, American version of Halloween was born. Early festivities were held in celebration of the harvest and included dancing, singing, and sharing stories about the dead. The second half of the 19th century brought a new wave of immigrants who helped popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally – particularly the Irish. Newspapers and community leaders campaigned to remove anything “frightening” or “grotesque” from Halloween, and as a result the holiday lost its religious and superstitious undertones. Between 1920 and 1950, the old European tradition of “trick-or-treating” became popular again in America, and by the 1950s, Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed at children. Trick-or-treating as well as Halloween parties held in classrooms or private homes became the norm, and indeed, these traditions continue to this day.