Despite its dark and morbid traditions, Halloween is a favorite time of year for many. After all, when else is it socially acceptable for adults to play dress up, and kids to go door to door collecting free candy?

Like most holidays, the Halloween we celebrate today has evolved over many years from a blend of old customs and new ideas. Most historians trace the earliest origins of Halloween to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain – pronounced “sah-win”. This celebration took place at the end of the harvest.

The Celtic people believed that at this time of the year, the veil between the living and dead worlds became very thin, and spirits had the ability to cross into the living world. This was both a positive and a negative to the superstitious Celts. They believed that while the spirits might cause sickness or spoilage of their crops, they also made it easier for their religious leaders to see the future.

To appease the spirits, masks were worn and huge bonfires held which contained sacrifices of crops or animals. The fires attracted insects, which in turn attracted bats – still a part of traditional Halloween imagery today. The festival also included a huge feast to celebrate the successful harvest. After the festivities, everyone carried a torch back to their home which was lit from the sacred ceremonial bonfire and used it to re-light their hearth. This was believed to offer protection and prosperity throughout the winter.

After the Romans conquered the Celts, other influences combined with Samhain that began shaping it into the holiday it is today. The Romans celebrated a day in late October called Feralia, at which time they honored their dead. Also included is a holiday celebrating Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and trees. Pomona’s symbol was the apple, and this is still seen in the modern day tradition of bobbing for apples.

As time went on, Christianity began to take root in these areas. Pope Boniface IV instituted All Saints’ Day on November 1, a day set aside to honor saints and martyrs. It is believed that he hoped this holy holiday would take the place of the pagan traditions still being practiced throughout the Holy Roman Empire. However, that was not to be the case. The name “Halloween” actually means “All Hallows’ Eve”, or the evening before the holy day. Instead of completely replacing the pagan traditions, All Saints’ Day only added another facet in the making of modern-day Halloween.

Halloween Today

Most American families celebrate Halloween by dressing up in costumes, attending parties, going to Haunted Houses, and carving pumpkins or gourds into jack-o-lanterns. Many choose to decorate their homes in dark, spooky fashion with props like fake spider webs, bones, and ghouls.

Trick-or-treating may be the most popular way to celebrate the holiday. Kids and adults dress up in character and go door to door exclaiming “Trick or Treat!”. This customary phrase implies that if the homeowner does not give a treat to their guest, a trick may follow. Of course, in the rare event that a child leaves empty handed, he or she rarely makes good on this promise. However, instances of criminal mischief on Halloween night are not uncommon in many areas.

For some, the superstitious nature of Halloween creates a conflict with their religious convictions. Many religious families choose not to celebrate, or to attend “Harvest” celebrations instead. These celebrations are more focused on the fall season than on ghouls and goblins, and ensure that no one is left out of the fun because of their beliefs.