Halloween (or Hallowe’en), is a contraction of All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), and is an annual holiday observed on October 31, which commonly includes activities such as trick-or-treating, attending costume parties, carving jack-o’-lanterns, bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films.
It is thought that Halloween, has it’s origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, but is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an or sow-in)”, derived from the Old Irish Samuin meaning “summer’s end”. Samhain was the first and by far the most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Irish calendar and, usually fell on the last day of Autumn.
It was a time for stock-taking and preparation for the cold winter months ahead. There was also a sense that this was the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest and magical things could happen. So To ward off these spirits, the Irish built huge, symbolically regenerative bonfires and invoked the help of the gods through animal and perhaps even human sacrifice.
Halloween is also thought to have been heavily influenced by the Christian holy days of All Saints’ Day (also known as Hallowmas, All Hallows, Hallowtide) and All Souls’ Day. Falling on November 1st and 2nd respectively, collectively these days were a time for honoring the Saints and praying for the recently departed who had yet to reach heaven. By the end of the 12th century they had become days of holy obligation across Europe and involved such traditions as ringing bells for the souls in purgatory and “souling”, the custom of baking bread or soul cakes for “all christened souls”.
In Britain the rituals of Hallowtide and Halloween came under attack during the Reformation as protestants denounced purgatory as a “popish” doctrine incompatible with the notion of predestination. In addition the increasing popularity of Guy Fawkes Night from 1605 on saw Halloween become eclipsed in Britain with the notable exception of Scotland. Here, and in Ireland, they had been celebrating Samhain and Halloween since the early Middle Ages and it is believed the church took a more pragmatic approach towards Halloween, viewing it as important to the life cycle and rites of passage of local communities and thus ensuring its survival in the country.
North American almanacs of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century give no indication that Halloween was recognized as a holiday. The Puritans of New England, for example, maintained strong opposition to the holiday and it was not until the mass Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century that the holiday was introduced to the continent in earnest. Initially confined to the immigrant communities during the mid-nineteenth century, it was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and by the first decade of the twentieth century it was being celebrated coast to coast by people of all social, racial and religious backgrounds.
The word Halloween first appears in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Hallows Day. Although the phrase All Hallows is found in Old English (ealra halgena mæssedæg, mass-day of all saints), however All-Hallows-Even is itself is not used until 1556.