A Brief History of Halloween – From Ancient Times to Today

In modern times, Halloween activities have included many different and seemingly unrelated activities. Few people know about the origins of Halloween, as far as most are concerned, its all about trick-or-treating, wearing costumes and attending costume parties, carving jack-o’-lanterns, ghost tours, bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films.

Ancient Halloween History

While exploring the origins of Halloween, historian Nicholas Rogers, found that “some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, whose original spelling was Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in)”. The name is derived from Old Irish and means roughly “summer’s end”. A similar festival was held by the ancient Britons and is known as Calan Gaeaf (pronounced Kálan Gái av).

The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”, and is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year”.

The name ‘Halloween’ and many of its present-day traditions derive from the Old English era dating back to the 16th century. The word Halloween or variation of it is first recorded in the 16th century and it comes from a Scottish variant of All-Hallows-Eve, that is, the night before All Hallows Day. Although the phrase All Hallows is found in Old English (ealra hálȝena mæssedæȝ, the feast of all saints), All-Hallows-Even is itself not attested until 1556.

Halloween in More Recent Times

The distinctive and strange imagery of Halloween is derived from many sources, including national customs, works of Gothic and horror literature (such as the novels Frankenstein and Dracula), and classic horror films (such as Frankenstein and The Mummy). Elements of the autumn season, such as pumpkins, corn husks, and scarecrows, are also prevalent. Homes are often decorated with these types of symbols around Halloween.

Halloween imagery includes themes of death, evil, the occult, magic or mythical monsters. Traditional characters include ghosts, witches, skeletons, vampires, werewolves, demons, bats and black cats. The colours black and orange are associated with the celebrations, perhaps because of the darkness of night and the colour of fire, autumn leaves or pumpkins.

Halloween Costumes

The wearing of costumes at Halloween has been around for almost as long as Halloween itself. As with many other human traditional celebrations, dressing up to look the part is an essential part of participating in the event. In recent years the traditional regalia of witches and skeletons have given way to a whole new set of subjects or themes. We now have Star Wars Costumes, Super Hero Costumes, Cartoon Character Costumes and a host of others being worn at Halloween.

Halloween Treats

One of the all time favourite treats at Halloween is the Candy Apple. Despite the proliferation of candies and sweets, the Candy Apple has persisted and is always a favourite.

Candy Apple - the history of halloween
Halloween Candy Apple

American William W. Kolb  is generally accepted as being the person who invented the red candy apple. Kolb, a veteran candy-maker in Newark, New Jersey, prepared his first batch of candied apples in 1908. He was experimenting in his candy shop with red cinnamon candy for the Christmas trade. He dipped some apples into the mixture, let the candy set and put them in the shop windows for display. He sold the whole first batch for 5 cents each and in subsequent years, sold thousands. Pretty soon candied apples were being sold along the Jersey Shore, at the circus and in candy shops across the country. In the beginning the Candy Apples were for Christmas but very quickly became popular at Halloween and were often given as treats.

Urban myths around Candy Apples

Halloween in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were numerous news reports about children supposedly receiving candy apples with pins and razor blades in them. Theses reports often created hysteria during Halloween in the United States and many hospitals were offering free x-rays to detect foreign objects in the candy apples. The stories have never been substantiated and have become urban legend in the modern history of Halloween.