Halloween: A History

Happy Halloween!


Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and a big part of that was knowing the history of Halloween.  Thanks to an incredible movie called The Halloween Tree (it’s also a book!) I learned a lot about the history of Halloween and associated traditions.  In honor of my favorite holiday, let’s dive into the history of Halloween.

Halloween: A History

Before Halloween was a holiday for children to dress up like monsters and gather candy, or a holiday for adults to wear skimpy and/or ironic costumes to party, Halloween was All Hallow’s Eve.  All Hallow’s Eve, also known as All Saints’ Eve, comes the night before All Saints’ Day, a day to remember your dead.


But even before it was a Catholic holiday, Halloween was Samhain, a Celtic holiday celebrating the harvest and remembering the dead.  Because of the transitional nature of the season, going from summer into winter, celebrants believed that faeries, and the souls of the dead, could cross into the human world with ease.  These faeries weren’t the Disney kind though.  These faeries were malicious and mischievous, and in order to protect yourself and your family, you had to make offerings to them to keep them from, say, burning down your cottage.


People would light bonfires to keep away the evil spirits, and wear masks to disguise themselves within their ranks.  Although let’s be real, the “ranks” were probably just other celebrants.  (But isn’t it fun to imagine it was a bunch of faeries and demons and ghosts wandering around Ireland?)  Trick or treating began as a threat, that if you didn’t offer these faeries and other evil spirits a treat, they would play a trick.

Happy Halloween

When Christianity swept into the region Christian priests and missionaries appropriated Halloween, among other holidays, to facilitate easier conversion of the locals.  Ironically enough, later Christians rejected the holiday as pagan, from Puritans in the sixteenth century to modern fundamentalists who use “Hell Houses” to try to prevent sinning.


Because of the puritans and other sects who rejected Halloween, it faded to the background until waves of immigration from Ireland and Scotland brought the holiday back.  By the early twentieth century Halloween had once again become a mainstream holiday.  Complete with creepy children’s costumes ca. 1950s.


Of course, the United States isn’t the only place that celebrates October 31.  Many places celebrate the Catholic holiday, and many others celebrate local traditions.  The most famous is, of course, Día de Muertos – the Day of the Dead.  Because I have never celebrated Día de Muertos and I don’t want to accidentally insult celebrants, let me direct you to some great resources to learn more.

This Halloween, I’ll be watching spooky movies, listening to Dracula on audiobook, playing in the leaves with my dog, and probably not handing out candy as there are like 2 children in my neighborhood.  For more Halloween check out my All Hallows Reads recommendations, and the Legend of the Jack O’Lanterns.


Buddhism & Lumbini, Nepal

I’ve studied Buddhism as an academic.  It’s fascinating, and probably my favorite religion to study.  But there are lots of things I don’t know about Buddhism yet.  So when I came across this Discovery News article about Buddhism’s (possibly) oldest temple, you better believe I read it immediately.

There was an article recently posted on Discovery News about archaeological excavations in the Maya Devi Buddhist temple in Lumbini, Nepal, where it is believed that the Buddha was born.  By excavating the site, archaeologists were able to discover a different kind of Buddhist temple, one with a central tree, rather than a central image of the Buddha himself, or of any other Buddha or Bodhisattva.  This layout is older, much older, and recalls early writings about the layout of Buddhist temples by travelers from before the first millennium CE.    

The Maya Devi Temple of today

Rather than focusing on an image of the Buddha, these temples focused on a sacred tree, which of course references the narrative importance of trees in the story of the Buddha.  Before he was the Buddha, he was Prince Siddhartha Guatama, a prince born in Lumbini, before escaping from his palace and devoting his life to teaching about Nirvana.  Before that, though, he had to become enlightened, which, according to the traditional stories, happened after meditating under a tree.  Before he died, the Buddha advised that everyone who was Buddhist should visit Lumbini before they died.  Trees are very important to Buddhism for just this reason.

So when archaeologists excavated beneath the extent Maya Devi temple at Lumbini, and found a temple with tree roots at the center, they knew what they had found was much older than the current temple.

While many academics have linked the rise of Buddhism to the rule of Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE, these archaeologists date a strong Buddhist tradition to the sixth century BCE, three hundred years before Ashoka.  This timeline really emphasizes just how old the Buddhist tradition is, and the context of the time when Buddhism came to be.

Monks at the Maya Devi temple excavation site

When I think about how old some of the traditions of the non-European world are, it makes me feel small and insignificant, because everything I know is so comparatively young.  Indian traditions are thousands of years older than anything I have ever known, and that sense of impermanence is part of what I seek when I study history.  What do you seek?

For more background, see the youtube video Buddha and Ashoka: Crash Course World History #6, or the book Religions of the Silk Road, chapter three.