Modern Halloween is basically an excuse to dress up in outrageous costumes, load up on candy, and deck out the yard with spooky decorations. But long before Halloween became a family-centered day for tricks and treats (Ok, mostly treats), its origins verged more on the scary side.
Most people believe the roots of Halloween can be traced back about 2,000 years to the Celtic pagan “summer’s end” festival of Samhain, which landed on November 1. During that time, the Celts believed spirits would pass through the physical world and potentially ruin their crops. To protect their harvests, families would leave out food and drinks as offerings to the spirits, and people would often disguise themselves in white with blackened faces in hopes of blending in with the ghosts. Check out these other 12 things you never knew about Halloween.
After the Romans conquered the Celts and started spreading Christianity, they likely figured flat-out banning pagan holidays like Samhain would lead to pushback, so scholars believe they instead combined those traditions with Catholic celebrations, in hopes of phasing them out. Around the 9th century, the Christian feast day for martyrs was moved from May 13 to the time of Samhain and was renamed Feast of All Saints. On October 31, the night before the festival, churches would hold a vigil for All Hallows Eve (“hallows” was another word for “saints”), which was later shortened to Halloween.
Eventually, the two celebrations became even more entwined. During the Christian All Souls Day, poor people would go “souling”: saying prayers for others’ deceased loved ones in exchange for pastries called soul cake that represented being saved from Purgatory—a church-friendly substitute for leaving food out for evil spirits. By the 1800s, the tradition was turned into a fun activity called guising, with children giving a performance of jokes, poetry readings, or music to earn rewards like fruit and money. Irish immigrants eventually brought modernized versions of guising to the United States, which morphed into trick-or-treating as we know it today. The days of hiding from real evil spirits might be long gone, but the fun of dressing up as ghosts lives on. Next, find out why we carve jack-o’-lanterns on Halloween.