The Haunting History of Halloween

Anna Sturgeon, Staff Writer

We all know the candy filled holiday of Halloween. But do we really know how it came to be?

The origin of Halloween dates back to the Celtic festival of Sahain, nearly 2,000 years ago in Ireland, the UK, and Northern France. Sahain was celebrated on October 31st when it was believed that the boundary between the living and the dead blurred, and ghosts returned to earth. Sahain was celebrated with sacred bonfires, people gathering to burn crops and animals as sacrifices, costumes made of animal heads and skins, attempting to tell each other’s fortunes, and people relighting their fireplaces with the sacred bonfire to protect them during the winter.

However, things started to change for Sahain when the Roman Empire conquered most Celtic territories, and the Romans combined their holidays with the Celtic’s. One of these being Feratia, celebrated in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead and to honor Pomona the goddess of fruit and trees, which may explain the tradition of bobbing for apples. In the 19th century, the influence of Christianity spread through Celtic land, turning November 2nd into All Saints day. Once again, people celebrated with bonfires, parades, and dressing up as saints, angels, or devils. This celebration was also known as Allhallowmas or Allhallows, making the night before Allhallows Eve, which eventually became just Halloween.

On All Souls Day in England, poor citizens would go house to house begging for food. Families would then give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for the promise of praying for the family’s dead relatives. This practice was called “going a-souling”, and was taken up by children who began dressing up when going souling. When souling, the soulers would sing a song in order to get their cakes.

In America, people began dressing up in costumes and going door to door asking for food or money which eventually became ‘Trick-or-Treat’. In the late 1800s, a move was made to mold Halloween into something more about community and neighborhood get-togethers rather than ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. In the 1920-30s, during Halloween, communities held parades and town-wide parties. Then, around 1950, Halloween was directed mostly towards the youth and small children. Parents were even encouraged by the newspaper and community to take anything ‘frightening’ or ‘grotesque’ out of Halloween.

Halloween lost most of its superstitious, religiousness, and traditional overtones by the beginning of the 20th century. Some of these lost traditions were surprisingly focused on matchmaking. One such “tradition” was more of an old wives’ tail claiming that young women eating a sugary concoction of walnuts, nutmeg, and hazelnuts before bed would dream about their future husband on Halloween night. Now, it’s safe to say, that anyone eating that much sugar before bed will probably just end up with a stomach ache.

Soul Cake Ingredients:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 3 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons milk
  • powdered sugar, to sprinkle on top