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Where Does Halloween Come From?

Image representing a student learning where Halloween comes from

If you’re currently living in or visiting the UK or the US, or you’ve seen many American High School films set at this time of year, you may be curious about what all the Halloween fuss is about – and where the tradition first came from. Let me explain.

Halloween goes right back to an ancient festival celebrated by the Celts, who lived in the UK, Ireland and parts of northern France two thousand years ago. Back then, the festival was called Samhain, which was pronounced sow-in.

For the Celts, the start of the New Year was 1st November. This marked the end of summer and the harvest season, and the start of winter – a cold, dark time when everything starts to die. Because of this, the day was also associated with death.

The Celts believed that on the night before Samhain (October 31st), the line between the world of the living and the world of the dead became blurred, and the dead could come back across to walk the Earth. While they thought this caused trouble and damage to the world of the living, the Celts also saw it as an important religious time, when priests called Druids would be able to make prophecies about the future, helped by the presence of the spirits.

The celebrations on this night included burning animal and plant sacrifices on big bonfires, while the Celts wore costumes that were usually made of animal skins and heads and tried to make predictions about each other’s futures.

Christianity spread to the Celtic lands in the 9th Century AD, and in the year 1000 AD, the Pope announced that November 2nd would be celebrated as All Saints Day. It is thought that he chose the date to replace the Samhain Eve tradition with a Christian holiday instead.

The people who now lived in these areas carried on celebrating pretty much in the same way as they always had before, lighting huge bonfires and dressing up in costume. The difference was that now they dressed up as angels, devils or saints instead. In the old version of English spoken in the area at the time, people called the festival Alholomesse, which meant All Saints Day, and as the language changed over time, it came to be called All-hallows or All-hallowmas.

The night before, which used to be called Samhain, was now called All-Hallows Eve (meaning the evening / night before All-Hallows). Eventually, this was shortened down to “Halloween”.

Much later, when people from England and Ireland began to migrate to what is now the US, they took some of these traditions with them, and they got even more mixed up with Native American customs as well as bits and pieces from other cultures as more and more people moved to the US. The Irish and English Halloween tradition of going from house to house asking for money or food became popular, too, and eventually turned into “trick or treat”.

Until now, Halloween had always been about the scary place between the worlds of the living and the dead, which is why people told ghosts stories, tried to see into the future, or followed superstitions like throwing apple skins over their shoulders to see if they would spell out the name of their future husband.

However, at the end of the 19th Century, religious leaders and other influential people in America became very concerned about what they saw as playing with witchcraft. There was a huge campaign to take all the scary bits out of Halloween and make it about doing things together as a community instead.

Today, the UK and much of the world are also strongly influenced by the American way of celebrating Halloween, which is more about parties and dressing up in fun costumes than being scary or keeping the dead on your side… but with so many scary films and stories set at this time of year, there is still a little bit of the old Celtic fear of ghosts and ghouls haunting the celebrations, too!

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