Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bumps in the Night: A Brief History of Halloween

Halloween’s rich history and traditions steeped in mystery and superstition form the fun community-based festivities we enjoy every October 31. The ancient Celts celebrated their new year beginning on November 1 with the festival of Samhain, which marked the end of harvest and the beginning of the dark and often deadly winter season. On this night, the lines between the living and the deceased were blurred, bringing unworldly visitors back to earth. The presence of these spirits led to a night of prophecies and sacred bonfires.

In the first century, the Celtic celebration merged with the Roman festivals of Feralia, honoring the passing of the dead, and the festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees whose symbol was the apple. Eventually, the Christian church created Hallowmas, a three-day celebration of saints and souls beginning October 31 and consisting of All-hallows Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

Wearing a grotesque mask was thought to disguise the fearful from wandering spirits after dark while food and wine was left outside to keep them from entering homes. During All Soul’s Day parades in England, pastries called “soul cakes” were given out to the poor for the promise of prayers for the dead, replacing the tradition of leaving food and beginning what is today known as trick-or-treating.

America’s Halloween traditions are a mix of old-world customs from generations of immigrants. Stories of the dead, fortunes and ghoulish mischief from the colonies mixed later with autumn festivals, but it was not until the late eighteenth century, with a rise in Irish immigrants, that Halloween became nationally celebrated.

This Halloween, join West Michigan as it celebrates this ancient holiday with events as varied as its past, from haunted tours guaranteed to send shivers up your spine to trick-or-treating for your little ghouls. For a list of great Halloween Haunts, including the nationally recognized Niles Haunted House pictured above, go to! For more great history on Halloween, visit

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