Pumpkins of different sizes on stairs for Halloween Decorations

The history of Halloween


What first comes to mind when you think of Halloween? Is it ghouls and ghosts? Trick or treating? Or is it something else entirely? The history of Halloween tells a much different tale to the one we know today, and it’s only in very recent times that sweets, costumes, and horror stories have become synonymous with the holiday.

So, how did 31st October become a day for celebrating all things spooky? Join Emerald Cruises as we explore the true history of Halloween.

Happy Samhain

The origins of Halloween can be traced back over 2,500 years ago to the shores of Britain and Ireland. Back then, the day was a Celtic and Gaelic festival known as Samhain (pronounced ‘Sow-ihn’), celebrating the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.

Samhain was the Celts’ and Gaels’ New Year, but it was also a day they associated with the dead. The New Year fell on 1st November, and it was believed that the night before was when the boundaries of life and death would overlap, with summer representing the living and winter representing the dead.

To appease the spirits that had supposedly returned to the living realm, Druids would construct bonfires, so people could offer sacrifices in order to bless the year to come. Approaching the ceremonial fires, the Celts and Gaels would adorn costumes, typically made from animal skulls and hides, while the Druids attempted to contact the passing spirits in order to make prophesies for the coming year.
Coastal cliff face over looking Ocean with Sunrise

The Roman festival of Feralia

As the Romans swept through northern and western Europe between 390 BC and 43 AD, they conquered and subjugated much of the Celts' traditional lands and peoples. It’s believed that the Roman festival of Feralia and the traditions centred around their goddess Pomona greatly altered the idea of a happy Samhain. 

Feralia was a day usually observed in late October, where Romans would bring offerings to the tombs of their ancestors. Often, these gifts were in the form of food from the recent harvest. Given Feralia's connection to the afterlife, it's no surprise that this festival would be merged with an evening celebrating the possible return of spirits to the mortal realm.

Additionally, the Romans used Samhain to further commemorate the goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. As the final harvest is reaped, sacrifices and offerings would be made to Pomona to ensure a fruitful return the following season.

All Hallows' Eve and All Saints' Day

By the 7th century, Christianity had reached far and wide across Europe, and with it came a new chapter in the history of Halloween. Pagan holidays were unified with Christian rites, and the Roman festival of Feralia and the celebration of Samhain were absorbed with All Saints' Day, a time dedicated to honouring Christian saints and martyrs on 1st November.

While the Roman and Celtic celebrations were not entirely forgotten about, unifying All Saints' Day with Feralia and Samhain allowed the Christian church to establish a stronger foothold in pagan communities. Most pagan symbology and practices were eventually replaced with Christian churches and traditions, bringing Britain and Ireland’s beliefs in line with much of Europe’s.

Similar to Feralia and Samhain, the evening before All Saints' Day revolved around paying homage to the dead. This night was observed with large bonfires and attendees dressed up as saints, devils, and angels. Eventually, this celebration became known as All Hallows’ Eve, which later evolved into Halloween.

Halloween lands in North America

Given how popular Halloween is in the United States, it’s strange to think it was highly discouraged when the country was still in its infancy during the 16th and 17th centuries. Colonial New England was populated mostly by Puritans, who believed celebrating was a distraction from religious principle. Given that many holidays also began as pagan celebrations, events such as Christmas and Halloween went unobserved.

In some southern colonies, such as Maryland, Halloween practices were more widely accepted and were observed annually. Eventually, the acceptance of wider European customs alongside the beliefs and traditions of the Native Americans had meshed, and Halloween almost exactly as we know it today came into fruition.

Ghost stories and pranks were now part of the traditions, but it wasn’t until the additional influx of immigrants—particularly from Ireland—in the mid 19th century that Halloween celebrations became popularised across the nation.

Modern-day Halloween

Trick or treaters on Halloween with Pumpkin trick or treat buckets
By the 1930s, Halloween had moved away from its religious roots and into a secular holiday. Community leaders in the US encouraged the celebration of Halloween (minus the more macabre aspects). Instead, the focus shifted towards parties, games, and enjoying seasonal foods and sweets.

In an effort curb the growing concerns around pranks that had simply turned into outright vandalism, trick or treating grew in popularity between the 1920s and the 1950s. It was seen as a way to placate troublemakers with sweets, but it was also a way to involve entire communities in the spirit of the holiday.

Today, it’s the parties, trick or treating, and ghost stories that most people think about and enjoy when 31st October rolls around. In fact, the concept of telling ghost stories has grown so much that film studios compete against each other every year to put out the season’s most terrifying horror flick.

Halloween around the world

Many countries worldwide celebrate similar holidays in their own unique way. From Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos to Italy’s Ognissanti, here are several ways Halloween is observed around the world:

Italy and France: Ognissanti and La Toussaint

While Halloween does exist to some degree in Italy and France, it’s not very popular. To the religious, it’s seen as a distraction from All Saints' Day on 1st November (Ognissanti in Italy and La Toussaint in France). But even those who aren’t Christian feel as though the modern Halloween concept is too commercialised.

In the bigger cities, where expats live and tourists venture, you’ll likely find a few Halloween celebrations, but you’ll be hard pressed to find locals running around in costumes trying to scare their neighbours.

Mexico: Dia de los Muertos

Known in English-speaking countries as the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos is not really a Halloween celebration, but the holidays share some similar elements and occur around the same date. And what makes Dia de los Muertos stand out is just how much of a celebration it is.

It’s a Mexican tradition to honour their ancestors, but the Day of the Dead is by no means a dreary event—it’s essentially a family reunion where deceased relatives are the guests of honour. Bright colours, music, dancing, festivals, and food are all key features, making it one of the most exciting celebrations to witness.

Germany: Halloween, Reformationstag & Saint Martin’s Day

Despite the fact there are three holidays all taking place around the same time in Germany, each event is different, and they all have their fans and detractors.

The history of Halloween itself in Germany is relatively short, as it’s only been celebrated there since 1991. The Gulf War had caused the cancellation of Fasching celebrations (a satirical event dating back to 1234 that mocked those in power and celebrated the common people), which hit retailers hard. In its place, the public relations expert Dieter Tschorn introduced Halloween to the German market. Retailers already had the food and costumes; all they needed was a catalyst to encourage the public to buy.

But 31st October also lands on a day celebrating the Reformation of the Protestant Church from the perceived errors made by the Catholic Church. Much like in Italy and France, the religious community in Germany sees Halloween as more of a distraction than a celebration.

And finally, there’s Saint Martin’s Day, which lands on 11th November. In a very similar vein to Halloween, children go around their neighbourhoods on Saint Martin’s reciting poetry and singing songs in exchange for sweet treats. There are some who believe this more traditional event is being side-lined by Halloween.

Despite its detractors, Halloween has become very popular with Germany’s adult population, with parties and special tours of the castle that supposedly provided Mary Shelley with the inspiration for Frankenstein available.

Enjoy the season of the witch with Emerald Cruises

Emerald Cruises passengers enjoying included Excursion
Whether you celebrate Halloween or not, you’re always in for a treat when you sail with us. Our range of river and yacht cruises are eerie-sistable if you’re hoping to enjoy a charming break towards the end of October—or at any other time of the year.

To find the perfect cruise for you, download a free brochure and start planning your scarily good adventure.