The Origin of Halloween: From the Celts to the Romans
Some historians trace the origin of Halloween back to the Celtic people of pre-medieval Europe. The Celts of Ireland, Britain, and France divided their year into halves: the “light half,” roughly consisting of the spring and summer months when days are longer and nights are shorter, and the “dark half,” roughly consisting of the autumn and winter months when days are shorter and nights are longer. Celts celebrated the end of the light half of the year with the festival of “Samhain” (pronounced sah-wen), which they observed during the October/November lunar cycle. Following the Roman conquest of Britain, British Celts adopted the Julian calendar and fixed the date of Samhain’s observance to November 1.
Costumes and treats were a traditional part of the Celtic celebration. And while Samhain began as a strictly Celtic festival, it is probable that aspects of Roman religion were incorporated into its observance over the four centuries of Roman rule in Britain (43-410 AD). For example, Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees and gardens. Her symbol was an apple. Some scholars believe this may explain how candied apples and bobbing for apples became associated with Halloween (as Samhain was later renamed -- see below).
The Origin of Halloween: From Pagan to Christian
Other historians trace the origin of Halloween back to the ancient and enduring Christian tradition of celebrating the lives of Christian martyrs on the anniversaries of their deaths. When Pope Boniface IV reconsecrated the Pantheon in Rome on May 13, 609 AD, renaming it the “Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs,” he established that anniversary as a day of celebratory remembrance for all of the Church’s martyrs. Pope Gregory III later changed the date of remembrance to November 1 when he dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to “all saints.” November 1 became All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallow’s Day. The night before became All Hallow’s Eve (“Halloween” being a colloquial contraction of that phrase). While Halloween began as a localized celebration, Pope Gregory IV extended its observance to all of Christendom in the 9th Century AD.
As Christianity spread throughout the world, pagan holidays were either Christianized or forgotten. Samhain was absorbed into Halloween. Costumes and gifts and bobbing for apples were preserved, incorporated into the new holiday. They remain a celebrated part of Halloween to this day, many centuries later.
The Origin of Halloween: From Sacred to Secular, from Secular to Pagan.
The origin of Halloween as a secular celebration in many parts of the world goes back to Europe’s rich Christian heritage. European empires conquered most of the world in the centuries following the Age of Exploration, allowing them to export their Christian faith and festivals to the rest of the world. With the Enlightenment of the 18th Century, secularism took root in Europe and spread to her colonies abroad. Christian holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Halloween were secularized in many parts of the world. The celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection was supplanted in the popular culture by the Easter bunny. Trick-or-treating eclipsed pious regard for Christian martyrs.