History of Halloween: the Sacred and the Secular

Bill Petro
7 min readOct 29, 2021

Halloween (Allhallows Even) is the evening of October 31. In its strictly religious aspect, this occasion is known as the vigil of Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day, November 1, observed by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. In the fourth decade of the 8th century, Pope Gregory III moved this holiday to the present date (from May 13) for celebrating the feast when he consecrated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to all the saints.

Later, Gregory IV extended the feast to the entire church in 834. In Latin countries in Europe, the evening of October 31 is observed mainly as a religious occasion, but in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, ancient Halloween folk customs persist alongside the religious observance.

Halloween is the second most popular holiday in the U.S. after Christmas — at least according to retailers — but it is the first in terms of candy sales. Not only are candy and costumes popular purchases, but increasingly, houses are being decorated with “Halloween lights.” Parties are popular and are increasingly being celebrated the weekend before.

  • In Boston, for example, Salem is a popular location for these with its month-long Haunted Happenings celebrations — due to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 — and the Massachusetts Turnpike traffic signs point out that Salem can be reached from Boston via Route 1A North.
  • In Tokyo, I’ve seen young people dress up in western-style costumes during Halloween, especially in the Harajuku district along the shopping area on Takeshita-dori Street.

Ancient Rome

Students of folklore believe that the popular customs of Halloween show traces of the Roman harvest festival of Pomona and Celtic Druidism. These influences are inferred from the use of nuts and apples as traditional Halloween foods and the figures of witches, black cats, and skeletons commonly associated with the occasion.

In Rome, Pomona was a goddess of flourishing fruit trees, gardens, and orchards (Latin word pomum, “fruit”, specifically orchard fruit) but was not part of the major pantheon of Roman God’s and goddesses (and is not mentioned at all in the Greek pantheon.) Ovid in his Metamorphosis tells how she scorned the woodland god Silvanus and instead…

Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, historian. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com