Halloween, like Hollywood, is an American cultural icon that has conquered the world. Everyone knows what it is, and the traditional activities that accompany it. Even those cultures or individuals who don’t typically celebrate it. Like us Brits who have our own similar but different tradition of Bonfire Night on November 5th. But the question we at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge have is where did Halloween come from?
Strangely enough, the roots of Halloween can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhaim. In ancient times Celtic peoples lived across the British Isles and much of modern France and Spain. To them the New Year began on what we now call November 1st. This was the point of transition between the long period of warmth and light that marks late Spring, Summer and early Autumn, and the long cold dark time of the Winter. A time they naturally enough associated with death.
They also believed that at this time of transition the boundary between the world of the living and the land of the dead was at its weakest. Allowing ghosts and evil spirits to pass over into our world, bringing havoc, disease and decay with them. And how did they choose to combat this potential supernatural disaster? By lighting lots of bonfires and dressing up in scary costumes to confuse or scare off the ghosts. As one does.
This traditional festival was later influence by Roman culture. And much later was co-opted by Christianity as the territory was converted. November 1st became known as All Saints’ Day in the Christian calendar. Also known as All Hallows Day. And the night before it, the traditional night of Samhaim became known as All Hallows’ Eve. -> Halloween!
An American Icon
But how exactly did an obscure Celtic/Catholic festival become an American icon? The usual way. Immigration. Specifically the immigration of vast numbers of Irish people in the second half of the 19th century. With them they brought many quaint traditions which entered the American melting pot. Including Halloween.
But the rise of Halloween’s popularity came about because of its adaptation. In America its more spooky and supernatural aspects were played down. And it instead became a festival more about building community spirit and togetherness. The kids would dress up and go Trick or Treating. The adults would all play along. And so it became as wholesome and American as apple pie.
But as Halloween became more mainstream, the inevitable happened. Commercialisation. Nowadays huge sums of money are spent on both the costumes to be worn and the candy to be distributed on the night itself. A far cry from an ancient Celtic festival to ward off evil spirits. But history is full of such quirks.