From the Druids to Draculas – The History of Halloween

Before the night is taken over by little ghouls and goblins going door to door trick-or-treating, the Oshawa Museum thought it would be appropriate for us to take a look at the history of All-Hallows-Eve.  Many thanks to our Durham College Library and Information Technology student Lee for authoring this lookback at Halloween!


Halloween dates back to the ancient Celtic people and the festival of Samhain (sow-in). The Celts lived on what is now Ireland, the UK and France. It was a festival Harvest when animals were brought back from pasture for the winter and necessary measures were taken to get ready for the winter. As well they would use this time to light bonfires and wear costumes to scare away ghosts. It was also believed ghosts and spirits returned to the earth and caused pain and misery to mortals, although the also thought that spirits would make it easier for the druids (priests/fortune tellers) to tell the future.  The Druids would light bonfires to commemorate the event  where they burnt offerings to the spirits and wore costumes consisting of animal heads and garb.


Once the Romans conquered most of the Celtic territory they picked up customs from them so they would combine there with the Celts. They had two days one to worship Feralia and another Pomona. On these days in late February were to commemorate the dead and the second was just to honor Ponoma whose symbol was an apple so people would bob for apples. Historians speculate that it’s where we get our bobbing for apples tradition.


Later the Catholic church would take the All Saints day and move it November 1, this was when they honored the saints and the dead and the day after November 2 was all souls day which was the celebration of the dead so as they became to fully join with the Celtics areas they became to adopt some of the traditions they celebrated but it still was not on October 31 like todays Halloween but by that time the night before All saints day (Oct 31) was a night they believed the evil spirits arose.

In Medieval times in the big cities on All Saints ’ Day people would also dress up and go door to door begging for scraps and sugar. It was not considered socially acceptable but it was a tradition people slowly started to warm up to.


Once people began settling in North America people began meeting with natives and celebrating with them for harvest. But they were not celebrating All Saints eve or the begging on All Saints eve During the Potato Famine with new Irish settlers they became to assimilate the All Saints eve celebration into the Harvest Festival to celebrate the dead, they also began to wear the costumes. It also helped popularize the celebration and bring it national stage. It was met with some resistance though as Americans and most Canadians believed begging was socially unacceptable. Even in  1948 in New York the Madison Square Boys club started a parade while they held a banner saying “American Boys don’t beg”. But the earliest known time in Canada was in Kingston Ontario in 1911 where the local newspaper reported young children going door to door asking for sugar. Eventually after WWII Halloween would become what it is today but not before a long period where kids would have to tell parents and owners of households what was going and what they were supposed to be doing.
With information from:

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