Simply utter the word "Halloween," and a number of images will come to mind-Jack-o-lanterns glittering on doorsteps with crooked, leering grins; wily black cats skulking silently in the shadows; young children roaming darkened streets dressed as witches and demons. Celebrated each year on Oct. 31, Halloween is a day shrouded in superstition, magic and lore. But many people aren't aware of the rich, complex history surrounding this popular holiday. Where did Halloween come from, and why do we still practice it today?
The holiday traces its roots back more than 2,000 years to the Celts, a group of people who lived in the present-day United Kingdom, Ireland and northern France. In an ancient festival called Samhain, held every year around the first of November, the Celts ushered in the Gaelic New Year by adorning themselves in costumes fashioned from animal skins and lighting sacred bonfires to ward off the dead.
When the influence of Christianity spread throughout the European continent during the 800s, many pagan Celtic traditions were adopted into Christian practice, where they existed in modified form. For example, "All-Saints' Day," the Christian festival of the dead, featured many of the same rituals as Samhain, such as bonfires, parades and, costumes. Also called "All-hallowmas," All-Saints' Day was held on Nov. 1, and the night before was known as "All-hallowmas Eve," and, eventually, Halloween.
Halloween reached the shores of America in the mid-1800s, when a large influx of Irish and English immigrants reached the United States. Drawing from old religious practices and folklore, these immigrants helped to popularize many of the Halloween traditions we know and cherish today.