Halloween history: The ancient origins of these dark traditions

Why do we celebrate Halloween, and what have pumpkins got to do with it?

  • Halloween was influenced heavily by Celtic, Pagan and Christian traditions.
  • The holiday has always celebrated the strange and scary, but festivities as we know them have changed over the years.
  • Current Halloween traditions were brought by immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century.

Halloween is a holiday that's celebrated every year on October 31st. While its tradition in the United States is felt everywhere, from horror films in our cinemas, weekend house-party revelers and kids trick or treating in the streets, the celebrations don't stop here. Halloween draws from a number of festive fall holidays throughout the millennia.

It originally came from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Later, in the eighth century, Catholic Pope Gregory III decided to call November 1st All Saints Day. Over time, the two disparate holidays began to coalesce and the foundations of Halloween began to form. The evening before November 1st became known as All Hallow's Eve.

Over time, Halloween activities evolved into what we know today. But it took a long time to get there.

Halloween: A mix of ancient traditions

Samhain Revival Via Flickr

In Celtic tradition, Samhain marked the day that summer was coming to a complete close. The harvest was ending and the throngs of winter were near. The shadowy winter was a time associated with death followed by eventual renewal. Celts believed that this was the night where the veil between the living and the dead was lifted and the spectral past returned to the Earth.

At the time, Druids (Celtic priests) would use Samhain to make prophecies about the future to help guide their community. They would begin to light massive bonfires where they burned crops and animals as sacrifices to their gods. During this celebration, the druids would dress up in animal heads and skins, dance around the fire and tell fortunes and stories.

It was the early first century when the Roman Empire had managed to conquer most of the Celtic territory. During this centuries-long rule, a few Roman fall festivals combined with Samhain. Romans also celebrated the dead through a holiday called Feralia. Throughout the years, this eventually blended with the holiday of Samhain. The next Roman festivity that influenced Halloween was one that honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and vegetation.

Halloween’s etymology and the lore of the jack-o-lantern

Photo: Getty Images

All Saint's Day

It was during the 18th century when the word "Halloween" came to be. Scottish poet Robert Burns helped to make the word more popular with his poem called 'Halloween'. The word itself seems to be a portmanteau of the word 'Hallow', which originally meant 'saint', mixed with 'een' which was an abbreviation of the word "eve," or night before.

Halloween is just another way of saying something like the night before All Saint's Day or Hallowmas. Christians tended to celebrate the holidays and other traditions on the night before the major feast, for example Christmas Eve.

The many mixtures of traditions date back throughout the years. People used to make additional food offerings for their ancestors and the many spirits wandering about. Halloween's history is a great mix of religion, folklore and eventually secular consumerism.

The apple bobbing most likely comes from Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruitful abundance. Jack-o'-lanterns derive from an old Irish folk figure; the legend was that one night a drunkard named Jack had come across the devil on a deserted and darkened road. He tricked and trapped the devil in a tree. After agreeing to let the devil down, he struck a deal with him that he could never take his soul.

When he died, he went to neither heaven nor hell. Instead he was forced to wander around in eternity. The devil flung up from hell an ember of coal to light his way, which Jack stuck in a hollowed-out gourd. Thus, the legend of the jack-o'-lantern was born.

Other eponymous Halloween traditions also have similar folksy roots.

Where did trick or treating come from?

Our modern day iteration of trick-or-treating has a number of influences. Ancient Celts began the tradition of dressing up as animals and evil spirits in order to confound demons and other malevolent spirits.

Eventually, in medieval England, there was a group of people called "soulers" who'd go around on Halloween begging the rich for soul cakes. They were said to have prayed for people's souls in exchange for their cakes or food.

All around Europe in the middle ages, there was a tradition of dressing up during major feast days and festivals. Eventually, the tradition of "souling" was brought to the United States in the 19th century. This would mix perfectly with the remnants of colonial Halloween festivities.

The peak time for the creation of what we now think of as Halloween came in the early half of the 1900s when there was an influx of millions of Irish immigrants. They helped to popularize the complete celebration of Halloween and eventually lead it to its national holiday status.

Borrowing from many of these ancient traditions, Americans would both dress up and go from house to house asking for food or money. This early trick-or-treating would eventually turn into the consumer bonanza we know today, with candy taking the place of the original "souling" practice. Eventually there was a general move in America to turn Halloween into a secular holiday and play down the ghastly and scarier aspects. The intention was to put the focus on get-togethers and parties.

Today, Halloween remains a mixture of many of these things. The spookiness still flows and the deep tradition is still there, hidden, if you know where to look.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.