The multicultural roots of Halloween

The traditions of the modern holiday known as Halloween are drawn from many religions and cultures. While nearly every culture celebrates the holiday differently, the one thing they all agree on is that Halloween is a night when the physical and supernatural worlds are closest.


Part of Halloween’s origins lies in a series of Christian holidays known as Allhallowtide or Hallowmas. The Christian roots of Halloween began with an evening vigil called All Hallows’ Eve that preceded the feast of All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1. All Saints’ Day is followed by All Souls’ Day.

Vigils were traditionally entire nights spent singing hymns, praying and listening to sermons.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Allhallow was officially established by Pope Gregory IV and the Frankish King Louis the Pious in 835 c.e.


Halloween’s Celtic roots come from a harvest festival called Samhain (pronounced SOW-in or SAW-in).

“It was the last night of the old year…and the first day of the new year,” Michael Simonton, head of the Celtic studies program, said. “It was a dangerous time, when the veil between this world and the Otherworld grew thin.”

During Samhain, creatures from the Otherworld could cross over into our world. Things like the Puca, a goblin in animal form, would wander through the night. A headless spirit called the Dullahan is believed by some to be the inspiration for the American legend of the Headless Horseman.

Unwary humans could also cross over into the Otherworld. The jack-o-lantern comes from the story of a turnip farmer named Jack who stayed out too late on Samhain.

“So [Jack] put his turnips in his bag and walked home, but he somehow took the wrong path, and didn’t realize it but he’d crossed the veil into the Otherworld,” Simonton said. “But he wasn’t sure what was going on, because it was dark, so he took one of the turnips…and he hollowed it out and punched holes in the side and put a light in there…and he held it up to see his way.”

When Christians settled in areas that celebrated Samhain, they adapted the festival as a time to honor saints.

According to Simonton, the word Halloween comes from a Celtic contraction of the words “hallowed evening.”


As Catholicism spread to Central Mexico, it blended with the native customs to create unique rituals and festivals. Dia de los Muertos, also known as the Day of the Dead, was a summer ritual that was changed to match the dates of Allhallowtide by Spanish conquistadors.

According to professor Zach Hruby, Dia de los Muertos has roots in Aztec cultures like the Mexica and the Acolhua.

Many traditions of Dia de los Muertos are based around offerings or other communications with the dead.

“The elites and royal families in ancient Mesoamerican cultures, living kings would often communicate, or at least pay homage, to their ancestors,” Hruby said. “So their ancestors became sort of apotheosized, in a way became deities.”

Peasants also maintained a close relationship with the dead.

“Oftentimes people were buried right beneath the floors of their own households, so they were always there,” Hruby said.

Elaborately decorated shrines were built in homes and later cemeteries to honor dead family members. Food and other offerings were sometimes used to resolve unfinished business with the departed.

Death was viewed differently in ancient central Mexican cultures than in Europe and North America.

“Before the Spanish conquest, death was seen as sort of an offering to various deities so that the universe could continue,” Hruby said.

Skeletal imagery has been seen throughout most Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Skeletons are sometimes seen with flowers to symbolize the natural decay and passage into paradise.

“The Mesoamerican afterworld was different than we conceive of it,” Hruby said. “We have a concept of heaven, and they have a concept of a flowery paradise, a flower mountain. Flowers are symbols of paradise…mountains, though, are important places of emergence for ancestors…the portals between our world and the underworld.”


On Oct. 8, the department of Latino Programs and Services brought 150 middle and high school students to the Student Union ballroom to teach them about Dia de los Muertos. Stations were set up where various activities informed the students about the holiday.

On Oct. 28 at 5 p.m., the NKU Celtic Studies Club will be hosting a Samhain party in Landrum 205. Traditional Irish dishes like colcannon, barmbrack, and black pudding will be provided.