Halloween is a festival that arose from a very traditional Celtic festival that over the centuries was influenced by Christianity.

Halloween is a very popular festival in the United States that emerged in the British Isles and is derived from a festival held by the Celts in ancient times. During this festival, which takes place on October 31st, children dress up as monsters and go out onto the streets asking people for sweets. Here in Brazil, this party has become increasingly common due to the influence of North American culture and the internet.

What is the origin of Halloween?

Historians attribute that Halloween was the result of the mixing of traits from a pagan and Christian religious culture. The pagan origin of Halloween is related to Samhain , a festival dedicated to the harvest and the dead practiced by the Celts in ancient times. The Celts were a people who inhabited the British Isles , as well as parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Central Europe.

Samhain was one of the most important festivals held by these people and took place between October 31st and November 1st , celebrating the harvest, as well as paying tribute to the dead. Samhain was a time of transition for the Celts as it was at that moment that one year ended and another began.

Halloween is derived from a festival held by the Celts, inhabitants of the British Isles in ancient times.  [1]
Halloween is derived from a festival held by the Celts, inhabitants of the British Isles in ancient times.

Samhain for the Celts was a time of celebration because of the harvest that had been harvested and that would sustain them during the long winter that was approaching. This was celebrated with great parties, but in addition, Samhain was an important moment in the Celtic worldview, as they believed that during the festival, the boundaries that existed between the real world and the supernatural world ceased to exist.

Thus, the Celts believed that during Samhain, the dead of the last year would wander the earth to visit the places they lived and see their families. In addition to the dead, the Celts believed that other supernatural beings, including evil spirits, roam the earth, after all, the boundaries between the real world and the supernatural were suspended.

Because of the festival, people lit up the villages and the paths with lanterns and bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits. People walked the streets wearing masks and disguises to avoid being recognized by evil spirits. Another way to ward off evil spirits was to carve macabre faces into turnips.

Christian influence

Halloween is a festival that emerged from traces of a pagan culture, but the Christianity that was rooted in the British Isles throughout the Middle Ages also had its influence on the emergence of this festival. This is because when the Catholic Church began to spread Christianity throughout Europe, one of the strategies used was to appropriate characteristics of pagan culture and make them Christian.

The date on which Samhain was celebrated was appropriated by the Church and transformed into All Saints' Day.  [two]
The date on which Samhain was celebrated was appropriated by the Church and transformed into All Saints’ Day.

Thus, as anthropologist Wendy Fonarow mentioned, the Church began to assert that the Celtic feast of the dead (Samhain) was not for the common dead, but rather for the saints of the Church. This reframing of local cultures did not only happen in the British Isles, but across the entire European continent.

In the British case, things started with a measure taken during the Middle Ages, specifically in the 8th century , by Pope Gregory III . This pope decided that November 1st would be dedicated to celebrating All Saints’ Day , a day dedicated to the veneration of saints who have died. This decision by Gregory III was exclusive to the diocese of Rome.

A few decades later, Pope Gregory IV decided to extend the measure to all of Christendom. Thus, November 1st began to consolidate itself as All Saints’ Day , as All Saints’ Day is known in English. Before Gregory III’s decision, All Saints’ Day was celebrated in May on the date that an ancient Roman festival was held.Don’t stop now… There’s more after the advertising 😉

Historians do not know whether the measure was carried out on purpose to combat the influence of Samhain, but in any case, it consolidated a period of Christian celebrations in the British Isles known as Allhallowtide . This period extended from October 31st to November 2nd and had three celebrations.

The celebrations that mark Allhallowtide took a few centuries to consolidate, so much so that only in the 14th century are records found that mention the period in a nomenclature similar to the one we mentioned. The three celebrations of the period were:

  1. All Hallow’s Eve – celebrated on October 31st as the eve of All Saints’ Day.
  2. All Saints’ Day – celebrated on November 1st as All Saints’ Day . It was a date of veneration for the saints of the Church.
  3. All Souls’ Day – celebrated on November 2 as All Souls’ Day . Date dedicated to the prayer of the faithful of the Church and those who were in purgatory.

Even with the consolidation of Christianity in the British Isles, traces of traditional pagan culture remained imprinted in the popular unconscious and, thus, a series of practices carried out during Samhain were transferred to the celebrations that marked Allhallowtide. During Christian celebrations, it was common for people to light candles and bonfires to ward off practices perceived as demonic, such as witchcraft, for example.

Halloween arrives in the USA

Halloween emerged in Europe at some point in the Middle Ages or Modern Age, but this practice only reached the United States late. It was in the 19th century, with a massive migration of Irish people, that Halloween arrived in the United States. Some historians say that the party did not exist in the USA during the period of colonization, while others suggest that it did exist, but was extremely limited by the religious rigidity of the Puritans (Calvinists).

With the Irish, elements of their culture were taken to the United States and after a while they ended up gaining fame and becoming one of the biggest celebrations in that country. Currently, Halloween is a huge party that attracts an average of 170 million people who spend billions of dollars on it.

Trick or treating

“Trick or treat†is one of the main features of modern Halloween in the USA.
“Trick or treating” is one of the main features of modern Halloween in the USA.

Currently, Halloween is a secular celebration, although some religious groups in the United States still dislike Halloween. The festival rescued elements from the pagan festival and modernized them, one of these elements being “ trick or treat ”, known here as “ trick or treat ”.

During Samhain, the Celts went from door to door asking for contributions so that the festival could be held, in addition to also asking for animals for the sacrifices that were required by the druids, the religious priests of the Celts.

Centuries later, Christians gave a new meaning to the practice and, thus, children began to visit homes during Allhallowtide to sing songs or say prayers for the faithful who were in purgatory. In return, they received a cake known in English as “ soul cake ” (here in Brazil there is no specific translation of the term, but in Portugal there is something similar and known as

From the 1920s onwards, this aforementioned practice began to be revived in the United States. In it, children started going from house to house asking for sweets and if they didn’t receive them, they would perform some mischief. The phrase they say when they are served is exactly “trick or treat?”.

And the pumpkin? Where did she come from?

The pumpkin used in American Halloween is an adaptation of a practice carried out by the Celts at the time. As we mentioned, the Celts used to carve turnips with macabre faces to ward off evil spirits. Furthermore, there was a practice of placing a lantern inside the turnip and this practice came from an Irish legend called “ Stingy Jack ”.

This legend tells of an Irishman named Jack who invited the devil to have a drink with him. At the end of his drinking, he convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin so he could pay the bill. After convincing the devil, he took it and placed it next to a silver cross, which prevented the devil from returning to its normal form.

He later made a deal with the devil so that he could free himself from the form of currency, but some time later, Jack tricked the devil again. After he died, Jack was not accepted into heaven because he made a deal with the devil and he was also not accepted into hell because he deceived the devil twice.

Jack was condemned to wander the earth in the midst of darkness and to do so he received a turnip with a burning coal that would serve him to light his way. Thus he became known as “ Jack of the Lantern ”, a word that eventually contracted to “ jack-o-lantern ”. This is the expression used to refer to the pumpkins that are currently carved.

The practice was taken to the United States by the Irish, but as there was a large quantity of pumpkins there, people began to use this fruit instead of turnips to carve macabre faces and place their lanterns.