Halloween has roots that extend back literally thousands of years among the peoples of ancient Ireland, Scotland, England and France as a religious festival.
Nature based religions that typically worshiped both a God and a Goddess celebrated this time as the end of the year, when the final crops were brought in and the dark season of Winter began. Priests of these religions would build sacred bonfires on hill tops and make offerings to the deities in order to assure them an easy winter and fruitful planting season for the next year. The local people would hold celebrations with lots of food, drink, dancing, and wear painted faces or fur and feathered masks. Children would get treats such as sweets that they normally wouldn't have during the year.
The Celts called this night "Samhain" (pronounced: "sow-wan"). While it was a festival for the years end it was also believed that during this time the veil between life and death was at its thinnest, allowing the dead to return to earth. In order to keep unwanted spirits away, they would hollow out a gourd or turnip and carve a scary face into it then put a glowing coal inside and set it on the ground by the front door for luck. This was also the reason for wearing masks and painted faces.
When the Romans conquer the Celts sometime during the 1st century A.D. they started trying to convert them from their own religion to the Roman's religion. The Celtic festival of Samhain fell on the same days as the Roman celebration of the harvest, Pomona, named for the Goddess Pomona who's symbol was the apple. With the two cultures living together, the two festivals merged into one, with the theme of apples and the harvest becoming part of the annual festival of Samhain. As time went by and the Romans converted to Christianity things got a little troublesome.
The Changing of Samhain to Halloween
600's Century: Roman Catholicism had started to take over, replacing he Gods and Goddesses of Celtic and Roman culture with "the one God". One conversion technique was to try to blend Catholic holidays with the Pagan ones to ease the transition. Since the Pagan celebration for Samhain was held on October 31st and November 1st, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st as All Saints' Day. On this day saints and martyrs would be honored. Unfortunately for the Pope it did not eliminate the Pagan rituals as he had hoped. The people simply celebrate both festivals together.
800's Century: Met with unsuccessful attempts to convert the masses and trying to further erase the Pagan religions Pope Gregory III ruled that All Saints' day was to fall on the same day as Samhain. He declared that, in celebration of the saints, young men would to go door to door begging for food for the town poor and that villagers were allowed to dress up in costume as saints. Thus, the eventual tradition of trick-or-treating was born.
1500's: After 600 years of religious change the Roman Catholics are finally getting rid of the last vestiges of Pagan religions. Samhain and All Saints' Day have blended so well that the old holiday is hardly recognizable and it's now called "All Hallows' Day". Since it's still a two day celebration, the night before is called "All Hallows' Evening". Eventually the villagers blend the name together and it's called Hallow Evening, or Halloween.
1600's: Roman Catholicism has split off into the Protestant Church of England when King Henry VIII wants to divorce his wife and creates his own church. The Catholics and Protestants do not get along and much violence is caused by this. Groups of people leave England by ship to come to the Americas where they can practice religious freedom. The Puritans landing in the New England states ban any holidays that they consider to be Catholic in nature such as Halloween, Christmas, and Easter. For the next 250 years, the very small population of Catholics and Episcopalians in America celebrate these holidays.
The Start of Halloween As We Know It
During the 1840's the sudden arrival of Irish Catholics to America during the Irish Potato famine brings with it the Irish Halloween traditions. The Irish discover an abundance of pumpkins in the New World and decide to use them instead of turnips. Carving a hollowed out pumpkin and carving it is much easier than using turnips and gourds. The Jack-O-Lantern is born!!
During the 1860's members of both the Catholic and Episcopalian churches campaign to put Halloween as an official holiday on the official calendar. It was already officially sanctioned by the churches and celebrated by some of the immigrants from the U.K. and Ireland. Even though it would not count as what was to be considered a "bank holiday" they wanted it recognized just the same.
During the 1870's and from this time period on, Halloween began to gain a real foothold in American society as it spread from immigrants to people born in this country. It was during this period that the idea of "tricks or treats" came to be as young people began using Halloween night as an excuse to play mostly harmless pranks on friends and neighbors.
In 1899, the Mankato Free Press reported that on Halloween "boys and girls were reported out on the streets making a lot of noise blowing horns and beating tin pans. They moved everything they could find to a different spot and removed street signs." This is the kind of harmless pranks that children and teens were doing during this era. The "moving everything they could find" usually entailed things like moving outhouses to other locations, putting chairs and other easy to lift objects on tops of houses.
Halloween Today, What Halloween has become today is very different from it's humble beginnings as a religious celebration, the vast majority of people celebrating it as a secular or cultural holiday with no religious connotations what so ever. Halloween in the United States and elsewhere continues to grow in popularity with each passing year, becoming bigger and more extravagant. People spend hundreds of dollars on costumes, props and decorations for their home haunts, household decorations, parties and professional haunts.
While it is still a religious holiday for Neo-Pagans who, while enjoying it as a fun time also take it very seriously, most people think of it as a scary-cool holiday. It's because it's stress free, that they dress in costume and can be what ever they want to be and cut loose even for just one night a year.