As a history buff, I find myself investigating the origins of many things. Holiday celebrations are one, so here you go. Enjoy.
The origins of Halloween date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in.) 2,000 years ago, the Celts, living primarily in the area now called Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated New Year on November 1.
This day marked the end of summer and the harvest. It also signified the beginning of the dark, cold winter, which was traditionally associated with death. It was a Celt belief that the night before the New Year, the borders between the world of the living and that of the dead became hazy. On October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when the ghosts of the dead returned to this world to stir up a bit of havoc.
Otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Celtic priest, or Druids, to predict the future. These prophesies were important and gave the Celts comfort and direction for the long, dark winter.
In commemoration of these events, the priests constructed large sacred bonfires, where citizens gathered to burn crops and animals (in Hollywood, sometimes people!) as sacrifices to Celtic deities. During the celebration, they wore costumes of animal skins and heads and conducted fortune-telling sessions.
By 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory and within the 400 years in which they ruled, two festivals of Roman origin were joined with the traditional Celtic festival of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a festival day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of trees and fruit. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and may explain why the tradition of bobbing for apples is popular on Halloween today.
The “holiday” was not widely celebrated in the New England colonies of America because of the rigid Protestant beliefs. It was practiced more in the southern colonies and common in Maryland.
The beliefs and customs of the European practices eventually blended with the American Indians and American colonists and a distinct version of Halloween emerged. Neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell fortunes, dance and sing. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivals were common, but Halloween festivities per se were not. By the second half of the century, however, new immigrants, especially the Irish, made the celebration popular nationally.
Fun Fact: Did you know that one quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween?