The roots of the Halloween costumes and tradition date back as far as 2,000 years ago, when the Celts occupied the region that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. They celebrated their new year with a festival called Samhain on November 1, and it symbolized the close of the summer and their harvest season, and the start of the long and cold, dark winter. The Celtic people associated this season with a time of widespread human death, and believed that on October 31 st, the night before the new year, the ghosts of the dead returned to earth to cause trouble and threaten the precious food supply. It was also thought that the presence of the spirits of the dead allowed the Druids, the Celtic priests, to make predictions about the coming season.
These prophecies brought comfort to the Celtic people during the long winter season, and during the celebration, fashioned costumes out of animal skins and heads to ward off the ghosts. The Druid priests built sacred bonfires, where crops and animals were burned as a sacrifice to the Celtic Gods in exchange for their benevolent support. The Celtic people then lit their own hearth fires from this bonfire to protect them from the harsh and dangerous winter season.
The Romans conquered and took over the Celtic region by 43 AD, where they ruled for the next 400 years. Their influence combined the tradition of Samhain with two Roman festivals, Feralia and Pomona. Feralia similarly was a time to acknowledge and commemorate the dead, while Pomona’s symbol is the apple, and is most likely the source of the traditional bobbing for apples at Halloween today.
Beginning around the year 800, the Christian religion began to encroach upon the Celtic territory, and the Pope enacted All Saint’s Day, probably in an attempt to replace the Celtic tradition of the festival of the dead with a similar Christian holiday. All Saint’s Day was also translated to be known as All-hallows or All-hallowmas in the language of the day, and eventually the night before the festival evolved into All-hallows Eve, then finally Halloween.
As the Europeans began to immigrate to America, their Halloween customs began to change under the influence of the predominantly Protestant New Englanders, as well as the customs of the early American Indians, to become the American version of Halloween we are more familiar with today. The holiday gradually became more secular, with more parties, costumes, and community-based activities replacing its religious and superstitious roots.
Many of today’s traditions of dressing up in Halloween costumes and trick-or-treating are derived from the early cultural beliefs of the Celtics and Europeans. They believed that wearing masks and disguises when leaving their homes would prevent the ghosts on the night of Samhain from recognizing them, and that they could prevent the ghosts from entering their homes by placing bowls of food outside their doors to satisfy them. By the turn of the century, Halloween parties for all ages became the form of celebration of the holiday, taking place in large public venues. By the 1950s, these gatherings became smaller, being instead accommodated by individual homes and small gathering places. This custom has become the newer American tradition, and most recently, spending for costumes has topped $7 billion annually. The desire to dress up in costumes and celebrate Halloween is more popular than ever today, making it the second largest commercial American holiday.