The history of Halloween

The name “Halloween” first emerged in the mid-18th century. November 1st is the Christian holiday of All Hallow’s Day or All Saint’s Day. The evening before, therefore, is All Hallow’s Eve. The name was shortened by years of linguistic mangling into what we know and love as Halloween. (Aotaro/Flickr Creative Commons) 

It’s that time of year again: when spooky scary skeletons, witches and Harambes galore go up to your door and accost you for candy. Though it isn't an official United States holiday, it’s still one of the most widely celebrated across all religions, states and ethnicities. Eight-point-four billion dollars is spent by consumers every year on the holiday, with an average expenditure of around $82 per person on costumes, candy, decorations and copious amounts of fake blood.

The name “Halloween” first emerged in the mid-18th century. November 1st is the Christian holiday of All Hallow’s Day or All Saint’s Day. The evening before, therefore, is All Hallow’s Eve. The name was shortened by years of linguistic mangling into what we know and love as Halloween.  

The holiday itself is a mishmash of pagan harvest festivals and seasonal celebrations. The seasonal changes were often a revered time of spiritual transfer and the cycle of nature. As the life of summer settled and died with the frosts. The bounty of the farmers was celebrated and the dead remembered.

This parallel is seen across many cultures. The Romans celebrated Pomona’s Feast, a festival and tribute to a harvest goddess that supposedly spent half of the year in the underworld, causing the world to mourn and die-- the reason for winter’s advent.

Samhain (Pronounced “sow-in,” meaning summer’s end) was a Gaelic pagan holiday celebrating the harvest and marking the end of the warmer months. Celebrators believed that the time of the festival was when the veil between the world of the dead and the world of the living weakened, allowing spirits, fairies and beastly creatures to cross over.

This belief is where many of the common traditions celebrated in modern times stem from. Fortunes were told by priests and druids, as the lines between the past and future blurred.

One tradition, called “mumming,” was for people to dress as the spirits of the dead and go door to door, asking for food while saying a poem or singing a song. This was an early precursor to traditional trick or treating.

As Christian missionaries and settlers spread across Europe during and after the Roman era, holidays and celebrations of converted pagan regions were adopted by the church. Since it’s hard to get people to give up their seasonal parties, Samhain was simply renamed and mixed with the Christian holiday of All Hallow’s Day.  

Pumpkin carving started in Ireland in the 16th century. Turnips and other carvable vegetables were fashioned into grotesque faces, to ward off evil spirits that could cause mischief.  

During the mass Irish immigrations of the 1800s and 1900s, immigrants found that pumpkins were cheaper and easier to carve. The tradition of jack-o’-lantern carving and mumming caught on as well, becoming a distinctly American tradition throughout the 1900s.

Children that went trick or treating would typically be given apples, popcorn balls, pennies and homemade goods. However, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s a rash of candy poisoning scares and claims of razors found in apples led to the push for the use of commercialized candy, partly led by the advent of sensationalized news.

Nowadays, individually wrapped “fun sized” candy is usually distributed. At this point only old people really hand out pennies. With the fear of poisoned candy and “stranger danger” still lingering, however, many parents hold alternative events for their children, including private parties and “trunk or treating”-- trick or treating out of car trunks in a safe parking lot.

College students, too old for trick or treating and yet too young to be sour about kids running around in the streets, have to stick to crazy Halloween parties over the weekend and coming up with last minute costumes because, frankly, midterms wait for no pagan holiday.

In any case, it only comes once a year, so carve a root vegetable of your choice, put on “Over the Garden Wall” and enjoy the pumpkin-shaped Reese's Cups while you can.

Happy Halloween, everyone.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.