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A timeline of Halloween history

  • A timeline of Halloween history

    In the modern era, Halloween has become synonymous with bags of candy and children running through the streets in costumes. But it hasn’t always been that way. Once upon a time, Halloween was a serious time dedicated to frightening away ghosts and spirits.

    It originated more than 2,000 years ago with the ancient Celts, who believed the transition from autumn to winter ushered in spirits of the dead. Their theory was that the darkness and cold made it easier for aos sí (supernatural fairies) and deceased souls to cross over between worlds. On top of this, it was harvest season and the Celtic New Year, so the combination of wanting to celebrate and also ward off spirits birthed a festival called Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”).

    During Samhain, celebrants wore masks and built large bonfires to scare away ghosts. People also went door to door offering prayers in exchange for small breads called “soul cakes.” As Christianity spilled into Celtic lands, the church picked up some of these rituals, combining them with its own.

    New and different versions of Samhain spread throughout the region and when Europeans began immigrating to the Americas in the 17th century, they brought their festivals with them. Two centuries later, the spread of the holiday progressed even further when immigrants with Celtic roots arrived after fleeing the Irish potato famine.

    In the 20th century, particularly after World War II, the celebration (which had by then become Halloween or “Allhallows Eve”) began to look more and more like the holiday we know today. Businesses seized the opportunity to sell things like costumes and decorations, and ultimately Halloween morphed into a commercial holiday. In 2019, 172 million Americans celebrated the holiday, with the average consumer spending $86.27, according to the National Retail Federation. With COVID-19 safety measures like social distancing in place, fewer people are going trick-or-treating this year, but 58% of Americans still plan to celebrate the holiday in some way, and average spending is actually up, to $92.12.

    To honor this spooky holiday, Stacker has put together a timeline that offers more details on the history of Halloween, beginning 2,000 years ago with Samhain and ending in present times. Take a look to learn more about the roots of this ghoulish festivity.

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  • 50 B.C.–50 A.D.: Samhain

    Roughly 2,000 years ago, the ancient Celts began celebrating Samhain to scare away the spirits. They associated the seasonal transition with darkness, cold, and death. The Halloween colors orange and black can be traced back to this time when black was associated with death and orange symbolized the fall harvest.

    [Pictured: Bonfire night during Samhain.]

  • 43–84 A.D.: Romans merge their traditions

    As the Romans overtook the Celts between 43 A.D. and 84 A.D., two of the conquerors’ previous holidays merged with Samhain. The first, called Feralia, was a late-October festival honoring the dead, while the second was an ode to Pomona, the goddess of fruit. Pomona’s symbol was the apple and this Roman festival is one of several theories about the origin of bobbing for apples.

    [Pictured: A painting by Juan van der Hamen shows Vertumnus and Pomona.]

  • 609 A.D.: Pope Boniface IV establishes All Martyrs Day on May 13

    In 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV established the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day when he dedicated the Pantheon to Christian martyrs, declaring an annual holiday on May 13. The holiday later came to be known as All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day.

    [Pictured: Depiction of Pope Boniface IV.]

  • 731–41: Pope Gregory III moves the celebration to Nov. 1

    Although the exact year remains unknown, at some time during Pope Gregory III’s 10 reign, he dedicated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to honor the saints. When he did this, he moved All Saints’ Day from May to Nov. 1 and it began blending with the other autumnal celebrations honoring the dead.

    [Pictured: "Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs" by Fra Angelico from 1420.]

  • 837: Pope Gregory IV orders observance of the holiday

    In 837, Pope Gregory IV ordered the general observance of All Saints’ Day. According to the Jehovah's Witnesses’ online library “Watchtower,” the move was in line with the church’s policy of “absorbing and ‘Christianizing’ the customs of the converts rather than abolishing them...Thus, in a single stroke of ecclesiastical diplomacy, a totally pagan festival with all its paraphernalia intact was married to the Church’s own centuries-old pagan worship of the dead. And ever since, the odd couple, Halloween and All Saints’ Day, have inseparably stuck together.”

    [Pictured: A church on All Saint’s Day in autumn.]

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  • 1000 A.D.: The church declares Nov. 2 All Souls’ Day

    By the turn of the first millennium, Christian influence on the holiday had become widespread and the church declared the following day—Nov. 2—as All Souls’ Day in honor of the dead. According to “It’s widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, church-sanctioned holiday.”

    [Pictured: Young girl at a grave on All Soul’s Day.]

  • 1300s–1500s: Aztecs begin celebrating Día de Los Muertos

    As the three days of spirited celebration—All Hallows’ Eve (Oct. 31), All Hallows’ Day (Nov. 1), and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2)—continued gaining popularity in Europe, the Aztecs in Mexico, meanwhile, began performing rituals of their own honoring the dead. These would later evolve into “Día de Los Muertos,” or Day of the Dead, a holiday that’s merged in recent years with Halloween in some parts of Mexico and the United States. Today, instead of saying “trick or treat,” Mexican children ask for candy by saying, “¿Me da mi calaverita?,” which means “Can you give me my little skull?”

  • 1600s: Settlers bring Halloween to North America

    By the 1600s, All Hallows’ Day festivals had become fairly well established in Europe. When settlers began arriving in North America, they brought the holiday with them. As these traditions merged with American Indian customs, things like oral storytelling, plays, skits, ghost stories, fortune telling, dancing, and other types of performance art were incorporated into the festivities.

    [Pictured: Illustration to Robert Burns' poem "Halloween" by J.M. Wright and Edward Scriven.]

  • 1620–90s: Pilgrim fear of witches popularizes black cat symbol

    Black cats had been considered a symbol of the devil in the Middle Ages, and before that, they were associated with spirits and gods by the Egyptians. European witch trials in the 16th century brought with them the presumption that those practicing witchcraft could turn into cats (at the time, some of those accused of witchcraft also had alley cats that had been taken in as pets). That paranoia traveled to the New World with the pilgrims; witches’ relationships with cats (and making their victims purr) figured prominently in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693. Today, cats are depicted next to witches in Halloween decor and are popular costumes.

  • 1800s: Irish legend of 'Stingy Jack' prompts pumpkin-carving

    In the 19th century, the Irish started carving turnips in response to the legend of Stingy Jack, a man who was condemned to walk the Earth for eternity after a bungled ploy with the devil. The turnips—which bore scary faces—were set outside homes to frighten Jack away. When the potato famine occurred, forcing droves to head to America, the immigrants brought the tradition with them which ultimately became pumpkin-carving, hence the name “jack-o’-lantern.”

    [Pictured: University of Southern California student Halloween party, ca. 1890.]

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