And the answer: Ireland.
Halloween’s origins began with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain in Ireland. Over 2,000 years ago, the Celts believed that October 31 marked the end of the harvest, and the beginning of a one-night celebration where the boundaries blurred between the physical and spiritual worlds. The Halloween we know today came by way of 19th-century Irish immigrants bringing their traditions with them.
Ceremonies to commemorate the dead have taken place across centuries and cultures since before the beginning of recorded history. More often than not, these festivals took place towards the end of fall and during harvest season, as communities prepared their homes and lives for winter. Yet, the origins of Halloween as a holiday—not to be confused with Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which takes place from October 31st to November 2nd each year—date back thousands of years to a specific, Celtic ritual. On October 31st, the Celtic people would signal the end of summer with a yearly, spiritual celebration intended to invite good luck in the new year. This celebration was called Samhain.
October 31st represented a night where ghosts of the dead returned to walk the Earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts believed that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids—or Celtic priests—to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were a necessary source of comfort during the long, dark winter.
Traditional celebrations consisted of massive, sacred bonfires, where members of the community would gather to offer crops and other sacrifices to the deities. By the time the Romans had conquered Celtic land in 43 AD, the tradition of Samhain had merged with other Roman harvest traditions to become a more recognizable version of Halloween. However, it wasn’t until immigrants began flooding to North American cities that Halloween became a national tradition. In the second half of the 19th century, new immigrants—especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish Potato Famine—helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.
Did you know?
Yesterday was Halloween! Each year, thousands of children take to the streets in search of treats (and hopefully not too many tricks!) Halloween is the second-largest commercial holiday in the country, just after Christmas. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers spent approximately $9 billion on Halloween in 2019! Makes sense, considering a quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween.
Learn more about the history of Halloween here.