What Is the History of Halloween?

The spooky autumnal festival of Halloween has a long history that can be traced back to ancient times. Read on to find out more.

Oct 30, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


The annual celebration of Halloween every year on the 31st of October is a mainstay across much of the western world. This spooky event has a long history of enticing cultural traditions that light up the dark and cold weather including carving jack o’ lanterns, trick-or-treating, dressing up, bobbing for apples and other festivities for all ages, which have evolved and adapted through the ages. But where did it all begin, and how did the day become so deeply ingrained into the autumnal calendar? We delve into the history of Halloween to find out more. 


The Celtic Festival of Samhain

samhain festival halloween
Source: The Local Mystic


The earliest origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, whose new year began on the 1st of November. The Celts of Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France saw the 31st of October much how we now see New Year’s Eve, marking the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another. For the Celts, this particular date was deeply significant because it signaled the beginning of winter, when the nights grew darker and the colder weather set in. For communities dependent on the unpredictable patterns of nature, the shift from autumn to winter was filled with fear and uncertainty, and the festival helped them to gain some sense of reassurance and security.


Modern day Pagans re-enacting the festival of Samhain, which revolved around fire
Modern day Pagans re-enacting the festival of Samhain, which revolved around fire.


Celts believed that on the 31st of October the walls between the living and the dead broke down, allowing ghosts to enter the living world and cause all sorts of trouble. Druids gathered people together during Samhain to host vast bonfires on which animals would be sacrificed to the Celtic gods, and Celts would dress up in elaborate costumes made from animal heads and skins. Many also dressed up to avoid being recognized by ghosts while walking around after dark. 


Ancient Roman Celebrations

Pomona Tapestry, William Morris, 1896
Pomona Tapestry, William Morris, 1896

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As the ancient Romans conquered Celtic land, they also absorbed influences from Celtic cultural traditions, which included autumnal festivities which paved the way for Halloween as we know it today. One of these was called Feralia, a day in late autumn when Romans paid tribute to the dead. Romans also developed an autumnal festival for Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit. Her symbol was the apple, which some believe led the way for apple bobbing and toffee apples that we now celebrate as part of Halloween.


Martyrs, Saints, and Souls

unusual patron saints
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, by Fra Angelico, 1423. Source: The National Gallery, London


During the 7th century the Catholic festivity of All Martyrs’ Day became a regular event, originally held in May. However, it later expanded to include saints, and was moved to the 1st of November. By the 11th century, the Christian church had evolved the celebration into two separate events, All Saints’ Day, on November 1st, a feast day which became a reminder for us to live like saints, and All Souls’ Day, an event for paying tribute to the deceased, celebrated on November 2nd. Both festivals remain a cornerstone of the Catholic faith.


All Hallows’ Eve

Soul cakes adorned with crosses in the traditional style. Source: Medium.
Soul cakes adorned with crosses in the traditional style. Source: Medium.


Over time the name of All Saints’ Day evolved into several other variations, including ‘All-hallowmas’, a name taken from the Middle English phrase ‘Alholowmesse’, which meant All Saints Day, or the shortened ‘All-hallows’. The night before the day of festivities subsequently became known by many as ‘All-Hallows’, a name which in turn became ‘Halloween’.


The concept of ‘trick-or-treating’ can be dated back to the practice of ‘going-a-souling’ on All Souls’ Day, in which the poor would go door to door begging for food, and be offered out ‘soul cakes’ with crosses on top from kind neighbors. In return, the beggars promised to pray for their neighbors’ dearest deceased. Eventually the custom was adopted by children, who began collecting the cakes for themselves.


Halloween As We Know It Today

Traditional jack-o-lantern carvings we now associate with Halloween. Source: HD Wallpaper.
Traditional jack-o-lantern carvings we now associate with Halloween. Source: HD Wallpaper.


During the late 18th and early 19th century, Halloween became an ingrained cultural tradition to celebrate bringing in the annual harvest. Communities would host parties for telling ghost stories and fortune telling, including rituals where women would try and predict who their future husband would be. Halloween’s core focus, particularly in the United States where European immigrants brought their cultural customs and beliefs, was predominantly on creating a secular festival aimed at bringing people together to celebrate the autumnal season.


Trick-or-treaters dressed up for Halloween. Source: Martha Stewart.
Trick-or-treaters dressed up for Halloween. Source: Martha Stewart.


However, by the 20th century Halloween had evolved into the spooky, ghoul-laden festival we know today, which was in part thanks to a proliferation of clever marketing and movie franchises throughout the 1950s and beyond. Meanwhile, the practice of trick-or-treating became a celebratory event for children to perform tricks and collect sweets from locals in their neighborhood, and it continues to remain a popular pastime today. 

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.