Young ghosts and goblins preparing their costumes and dreaming of Halloween treats Oct. 31 may not realize the event began as a religious celebration.
Classics professor Robert E. Wolverton Sr. of Mississippi State University says the day we now know as Halloween began with the ancient Celts.
"Long before the time of Christianity, this European people celebrated Nov. 1 as the beginning of the new year," he said. "The day before, Oct. 31, was a day to remember those who died and to seek their help and the help of their gods for the year ahead."
Halloween is derived from "hallow," which means "to make holy." In this tradition, celebrants believed the souls of the dead could return to work for good or for evil, depending on how they were treated. The souls were represented by living persons wearing costumes or masks. Food, drink and hospitality were thought to make the dead kinder toward the living.
The Romans, who introduced some agricultural crops to the British, would hollow out turnips or potatoes and put candles in them for light, but later decided to move to a larger vegetable--the pumpkin. The Romans also introduced bobbing for apples to ensure good luck.
Celtic, Roman and Christian traditions later merged to give the holiday new meanings. "The Christians named the first day of the new year All Hallows with the night before called All Hallows Eve," Wolverton explained. "On All Hallows Day, people flocked to the churches to honor the dead saints. Christians added All Saints Day on Nov. 2 to honor all the dead, not just Christians."
Among superstitions that evolved: bad souls wear large black hats. The color was associated with Satan, who supposedly worked evil deeds at night. Traditions continued to evolve in more modern times, especially in the United States.
"Black cats, the witch's hat and the pumpkin have all become secularized," says Wolverton. "America probably has secularized Halloween more than any other country and made it into a holiday for children, rather than a holy day for all Christians. Other countries still celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but we tend just to have fun on Halloween."