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Before trick-or-treating, commercialization and block parties, Halloween was rooted in Celtic religion

Trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving and dressing up in costumes are activities nearly all Americans think of when the Halloween season rolls around, but the celebration had a different start. 

Halloween was originally a Celtic festival called Samhain, which started more than 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. The festival, which was held Nov. 1, was a way to mark the new year and the end of summer and the harvest. The Celts believed that on Oct. 31, the boundary between the living and the dead was the thinnest and ghosts could return to earth. 

“People would leave gifts to the fairies so they wouldn’t mess with their livestock,” Brian Collins, an associate professor of classics and world religions, said.  

Along with leaving gifts, Celts would sacrifice animals to the gods, Collins said. 

Many people don’t believe in the darker origin stories of the holiday, but it was confirmed that Celts did practice human sacrifice, according to USA Today

James Frazer was a key player in popularizing stories of Samhain, Collins said. In Frazer’s book The Golden Bough, he studied ancient cults and myths. 

“He popularized the idea that Samhain was a feast for the dead,” Collins said. 

The holiday has changed drastically over the years. It wasn’t until about the early to mid-19th century that Halloween became what it is today. 

Ghost stories were also told more around Christmas because of the shorter days, Collins said. 

“Short days is when people thought ghosts were about,” Collins said. 

Collins believes people like Halloween because it allows them to feel something outside of themselves.

“I think that the urge to feel fear is like the urge to feel something outside of yourself,” Collins said. “(It’s) the same impulse to have religion, to feel something like transcendence.”

Although its origins are in Europe, Halloween is widely celebrated by Americans — more than 175 million are expected to celebrate Halloween this year, according to the National Retail Federation

Manon Rondeau, a graduate student studying English, said her village in France does not celebrate Halloween like Americans do.

“We do (celebrate Halloween), but it’s very small,” Rondeau said. “We consider it to be an American celebration.”

Halloween is almost only celebrated by children, Rondeau said, but not many go trick-or-treating. Adults rarely celebrate it, and if they do, it’s just getting together with friends to eat food. 

The costume choices in France are much more strict, Rondeau said. People strictly dress up as something scary as opposed to a pop culture icon. 

“The typical costumes are scary ones, so skeletons, witches, ghosts,” Rondeau said. “You cannot dress up as a cowboy or a nurse. It has to be a scary thing.” 

For people in her village and in France overall, Rondeau said Halloween is linked to being a scary holiday, so people always follow the theme. Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas is a popular costume. 

When she first experienced Halloween in the U.S., Rondeau was surprised and overwhelmed. 

“I was a bit puzzled,” Rondeau said. “I did not expect to see so many people in the street and drinking and partying like crazy.”

When Rondeau’s friends and family saw she participated in the Halloween celebration, they asked her a lot of questions about what it was like. After she told them it was going to a bar and celebrating, they said it just seemed like a regular party but with costumes. 

“They asked what I did and if I went to one door to the next to get candy because they think that everyone is like a kid,” Rondeau said. 

Another typical Halloween tradition that is not popular in France is carving pumpkins. When Rondeau carved her own pumpkin here in Athens, she did enjoy it.

“No one in my village really ever carved pumpkins. It’s not something we do,” Rondeau said. “I might do it in France.”


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