When most people think about Halloween (the holiday) it’s usually thought of as an American custom or practice that’s borne out of commercialism. The truth however, is that the macabre holiday has its roots in several other traditional celebrations like “All Saints day”, rural harvest festivals, the Celtic’s “Samhain” and of course, various Pagan rituals. In other words, one might accurately think of Halloween as a sort of mish-mash of a number of other mostly European and American traditional calendar events taking place in late October (or in the fall).
The most obvious hint that Halloween isn’t a full-on American invention comes from the name of the event itself. Halloween is actually a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve”, which is celebrated on November 1st and is an important day in the Christian calendar. Catholic countries in particular have long celebrated “All Hallows Day” and it essentially honors all the saints (known or unknown). It would seem that Halloween’s placement on the eve of such a hallowed (no pun intended) celebration of sainthood plays some special significance. For starters, “All Hallows Day” commemorates beatification (or, a dead person’s entrance into heaven), so it would make sense that these kinds of “festivals of the dead” might fall directly on the eve of such an important day for Christians and Catholics.
Moreover, as things like harvest festivals were perhaps more common in rural areas in Europe, it also fits that the ghoulish practices of Halloween might take place the night before. As previously mentioned, Pagan-esque beliefs have been attributed to some of the practices of Halloween also, so one might view this holiday as being the last night for the spirits to commingle before being purged on November 1st.
However, it should be noted that a great deal of influence (concerning Halloween’s development as a holiday) sprang from the Celts. In tracing back the origins of this holiday, many have linked it with feasts and festivals which are meant to mark the end of summer, hence the tie-in with Paganism. For example, the Romans had an annual “feast of Pomona” which is very similar to that of the Celtic festival of “Samhain”. This means that in Scotland, Ireland and on the Isle of Man, Samhain was observed on October 31st – November 1st marking the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Some have even taken to calling Samhain the embodiment of “the Celtic New Year” due to the fact that protective rituals were performed at the same time that livestock was slaughtered for their meat (to be put up for the winter).
According to Celtic beliefs, Samhain was one of the annual periods when spirits were allowed to come into our world. Characteristically, this nether realm is called “Otherworld” and is said to be the home for the deceased as well, who on Samhain, might even cross over and pay a visit to their old home. Because of this, the old Celts even set places for their dead relatives during Samhain, hence the title “feast of the dead”. Now, when you consider that the Celts also believed that spirits or fairies also came through these portals during these times of the year, the origins of trick or treating also become obvious. In other words, one might say that the entire practice of children dressing up as ghosts and ghouls and knocking on doors for candy has its roots directly in the Celtic practice / belief of setting places for the dead during Samhain. Similarly, when you factor in that the Celts believed more than one type of spirit would cross over, the great variation in creepy costumed attire on Halloween makes a bit more sense as well. Even more obvious a correlation is the old 19th century Irish practice where a white horse (one or more persons in a costume) would lead the village children around door to door in order to collect food. Naturally, if they acquiesced it would supposedly bring them good fortune.
What’s Halloween without jack-o-lanterns, right? The practice of hollowing out pumpkins and cutting out spooky faces in them also is of a Celtic origin. Once again, during Samhain in countries like Ireland and Scotland, “turnip lamps” were often cut with faces in them. Furthermore, this old practice also is said to ward off evil spirits with a legend even appearing that explains the origins of the term “jack-o-lantern”. It was said that a guy named Jack somehow trapped the devil inside a pumpkin and then proceeded to show it off around town that night. As punishment, the angered devil turned Jack into an eternal evil spirit which would then be released upon the world on hallows eve. In order to prevent Jack from terrorizing them, people were supposed to cut out scary faces in pumpkin lanterns in order to make it appear as though the devil was inside.
So, just how far has Halloween spread throughout the world, you might be wondering? Believe it or not, America isn’t the only place where people routinely celebrate this fun, yet somewhat dark, holiday; many cultures from around the world have begun to embrace it. Believe it or not, the earliest American colonists (also called Puritans) were vehemently opposed to the celebration of holidays like Samhain or Halloween. In short, it would seem that Halloween itself was imported in America during the 18th or 19th century via immigrants.
As far as other more remote places are concerned, where Halloween is still more or less celebrated in some form or another, it has a fairly amicable following. For instance, many Asian territories celebrate Halloween or some local variation thereof. Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and even Australia have embraced the celebration in some form or fashion. Likewise, south and Central Americans have also adopted Halloween, with places like Colombia and Brazil integrating it alongside their traditional festivals. Naturally, Europe is jam-packed with Halloween celebrators, including Austria, Armenia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, and the UK, of course.