Halloween: From Pagan Holiday to Trick-or-Treating

Halloween; the one day of the year where people dress up in strange outfits and hand out candy to strangers.

However, it was not always this way. Like other Western religious holidays, Halloween was originally a pagan holiday. According to the Library of Congress, “The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the Celts of ancient Europe who celebrated Samhain, their harvest day and the beginning of the New Year.” The Celts believed that the spirits of the deceased from the previous year were close to the earth on this day as well as various demons, ghosts, witches and faeries. To placate these spirits and pay tribute to the dead, the Celts left food and drink out for them, while lighting bonfires and giving animal sacrifices to guide the spirits of their loved ones to the otherworld.

Aiming to convert as many new believers as possible, the Catholic Church in the 600s chose to respect these traditions, but gave it a Christian facelift- All Saints Day, a celebration on Nov. 1 to commemorate those who died in the past year. The original name for this day was All Hallows, making the previous day All Hallows Eve or Halloween. This was said to be the most active day for the spirits in their movements towards their final destination.

The traditions changed significantly over time. After many centuries, people started dressing as the spirits and demons of the otherworld and performing antics in exchange for the food and drink offerings.  The otherworld creatures were deemed by the church over time to be evil and were the basis for what became known as Hell. The Celtic population’s interpretation of these creatures morphed into the more well-known stories of faeries and leprechauns we associate with Ireland. The food and drink became candy, and the costumes became more varied as we understand it today.

Now, everyone joins in the celebration of Halloween by dressing up and trick-or-treating. Although it may have lost its meaning over the years for some, it is still a very much celebrated holiday that everyone can enjoy.

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