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As the temperatures outside begin to drop, many children (and adults) start to get excited about Halloween. In anticipation of a candy-filled evening on October 31, I would like to look back on the origin of the tradition.

Halloween originated approximately 2,000 years ago with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Celts, who lived in the areas that now comprise Ireland, United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1, which marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark and cold winter. This time of year was associated with human death. Celts believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurred on the night before the New Year. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, to avoid being recognized by the ghosts, who would mistake them for fellow spirits.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as time to honor all saints. Over time, All Saints Day began to incorporate some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before, October 31, was known as All Hallows Eve, and later as Halloween.

A distinctly American version of Halloween emerged as the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups and American Indians meshed. Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine in the second half of the nineteenth century subsequently popularized the celebration of Halloween nationally. There was a move to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers instead of ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. Community leaders encouraged parents to take anything “frightening” out of Halloween, and the customs lost most of the superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century. Trick-or-treating became popularized from Irish and English traditions. The practice involved dressing up in costumes and going house-to-house asking for food or money. In theory, families could prevent tricks being played on them by providing neighborhood children with small treats.

Halloween in the United States has evolved into a more commercialized holiday. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas. In fact, nearly 25% of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween. Stores now sell companion lighting, ornaments, and novelty yard items in addition to the prepackaged candies to be given to trick-or-treating children.

As Halloween nears, let’s hope for good weather so that we can all enjoy a festive evening. Stay warm, be safe, and enjoy your candy!


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