Halloween is a secular holiday combining vestiges of traditional harvest festival celebrations with customs more peculiar to the occasion. Among others, it consists of costume wearing, trick-or-treating, pranksterism, and decorative imagery based on the changing of the seasons, death, and the supernatural. Most people who celebrate Halloween have absolutely no idea what they are actually celebrating. Even though approximately 70 percent of Americans will participate in Halloween festivities once again this year, the vast majority of them are clueless about the fact that this is a holiday that is thousands of years old and that has deeply pagan roots. If you are going to celebrate something, shouldn’t you at least know what you are celebrating?
The name Halloween is a blending of the words All Hallows’ and Even or E’en (referring to the evening before All Holies Day, or All Saints’ Day, which is November 1). The term hallow means “holy”. Early in church history, Christians began to celebrate the “saints” and by the 7th century, All Saints’ Day was celebrated annually throughout the Christian world – Orthodox churches celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost, and Roman Catholic churches celebrated on May 13th. Nicholas Rogers, a history professor at York University in Toronto and author of “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night” (Oxford University Press, 2003) tells a lot about this holiday.
Halloween symbols, customs, and practices undoubtedly have had a variety of influences upon Western culture throughout history. However, in early American history, Halloween was not celebrated due to America’s strong Christian heritage. It was not widely observed until the twentieth century. Initially, it was practiced only in small Irish Catholic settlements, until thousands of Irish migrated to America during the great potato famine and brought their customs with them. To some degree, our modern Halloween is an Irish holiday with early origins in the Celtic winter festival. Interestingly, in American culture, the rise in popularity of Halloween also coincides roughly with the national rise in spiritism that began in 1848.
Ireland is the only place in the world where Halloween is actually a national holiday (celebrated with fireworks); children are even released from school for the week. Among the modern customs and practices of Halloween, we can note numerous possible or probable influences.
Where did the jack-o’-lantern originate?
The carved pumpkin may have originated with the witches’ use of a collection of skulls with a candle in each to light the way to coven meetings. But among the Irish, who, as noted, prompted the popularization of Halloween in America, the legend of “Irish Jack” explains the jack-o’-lantern. According to the legend, a stingy drunk named Jack tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree for an apple, but then cut the sign of a cross into the trunk of the tree to prevent the devil from coming down. Jack then forced the devil to swear he would never come after Jack’s soul. The devil reluctantly agreed.
Jack eventually died, but he was turned away at the gates of heaven because of his drunkenness and life of selfishness. He was sent to the devil, who also rejected him, keeping his promise. Since Jack had no place to go, he was condemned to wander the earth. As he was leaving hell (he happened to be eating a turnip), the devil threw a live coal at him. He put the coal inside the turnip and has since forever been roaming the earth with his “jack-o’-lantern” in search of a place to rest. Eventually, pumpkins replaced turnips since it was much easier to symbolize the devil’s coal inside a pumpkin.
How did the tradition of trick-or-treating begin?
In Ireland, people thought that ghosts and spirits roamed after dark on Halloween. They lit candles or lanterns to keep the spirits away, and if they had to go outside, they wore costumes and masks to frighten the spirits or to keep from being recognized by these unearthly beings. Going from door to door seeking treats may result from the Druidic practice of begging material for the great bonfires. As for the “trick” custom of Halloween, this is related to the idea that ghosts and witches created mischief on this particular night. For example, if the living did not provide food, or “treats,” for the spirits, then the spirits would “trick” the living. People feared terrible things might happen to them if they did not honor the spirits. Further, some people soon realized that a mischievous sense of humor, or even malevolence, could be camouflaged—that they could perform practical jokes on or do harm to others and blame it on the ghosts or witches roaming about.
Now enter the plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder. This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against the oppressors. The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on November 5, 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested. He was hanged; the plot fizzled. November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains. During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: trick or treat!
Where did Halloween costumes originate?
Our traditions on this holiday center on dressing up in fanciful costumes, which isn’t Irish at all. Rather, this custom arose in France during the 14th and 15th centuries. Late medieval Europe was hit by repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague–the Black Death–and it lost about half its population. On All Souls Day, artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality. We know these representations as the danse macabre, or “dance of death,” which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and shows the devil leading a daisy chain of people–popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc.–into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life. But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Halloween; and the Irish, who had Halloween, did not dress up. How the two became mingled probably happened first in the British colonies of North America during the 1700s, when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry. The Irish’ focus on hell gave the French masquerades an even more macabre twist.
Halloween masks and costumes were used to hide one’s attendance at pagan festivals or—as in traditional shamanism (mediated by a witch doctor or pagan priest) and other forms of animism—to change the personality of the wearer to allow for communication with the spirit world. Here, costumes could be worn to ward off evil spirits. On the other hand, the costume wearer might use a mask in an attempt to attract and absorb the power of the animal represented by the mask and costume worn. According to this scenario, Halloween costumes may have originated with the Celtic Druid ceremonial participants, who wore animal heads and skins to acquire the strength of a particular animal.
What’s the significance of fruits and nuts at Halloween?
Halloween traditions often involve fruit centerpieces, apples, and nuts. Three of the sacred fruits of the Celts were acorns, apples, and nuts, especially the hazelnut, considered a god, and the acorn, sacred from its association to the oak. Fruits and nuts also seem to be related to the Roman harvest feast of Pomona, apparently the goddess of fruit. For example, in ancient Rome, cider was drawn and the Romans bobbed for apples, which was part of a divination that supposedly helped a person discover their future marriage partner.
Where did Witches come from?
Well, they are one of the last additions. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s. Halloween was already “ghoulish,” so why not give witches a place on greeting cards?
The Melting Pot
Guy Fawkes Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. But by the time of the American Revolution, old King James and Guy Fawkes had pretty much been forgotten. Trick or treat, though, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to October 31, the day of the Irish-French masquerade. And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics. The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the United States by the early 1800s. To this day, it remains unknown in Europe, even in the countries from which some of the customs originated.
As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups meshed together a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America entered an age of mysticism. What was more often termed spiritualism. Metaphysical groups and clubs began to spring up throughout the Golden Age and the wealthier set of Americans. At the same time, America was welcoming a new group of immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846. This new cultural influence brought with it a melding of Irish and English traditions, and a new Americans culture was born. People began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors.
In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers, than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during this time. By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated.
Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. Kids ringing a stranger’s doorbell in 1948 or 1952 received all sorts of tribute: Coins, nuts, fruit, cookies, cakes, and toys were as likely as candy. In the 1950s, Kool-Aid and Kellogg’s promoted their decisively non-candy products as trick-or-treat options, while Brach’s once ran ads for chocolate-covered peanuts during the last week of October that didn’t mention Halloween at all. Christmas and Easter were big candy events, already established with their candy traditions by 1900.
It was during the 1950s that candy made decisive inroads in dominating Halloween. The rise of trick-or-treating made the holiday the perfect occasion for marketing a product associated with children and fun. Through the 1960s, it was still conceivable that some other treat might be offered. It wasn’t until the 1970s that candy came to be seen as the only legitimate treat. And while the candy industry reaped the benefits, the immediate impetus was not brilliant marketing so much as rising fears that unwrapped or homemade Halloween treats posed risks of tampering and poisoning. Commercial wrapped candy was the only safe choice.
A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow.
By the 1990s, Americans have made Halloween one of the largest commercial holidays. Spending an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween costumes, accessories, decorations and pumpkins.