Every October, Americans expect to see dozens of costumes parading the streets, hundreds of carved pumpkins decorating every suburban front porch and thousands of pieces of candy handed out to trick-or-treaters of all ages. Suffice it to say, Halloween is a pretty big deal.
While jack-o-lanterns, witches and candy corn may seem like second nature to some, if you stop and think about it, Halloween is a pretty weird holiday. After all, why is it a tradition to dress in ridiculous costumes and visit complete strangers’ houses to ask for free candy? Why do we insist on taking a vegetable from the ground and cutting a face into it instead of just eating it like all other foods we grow? Where did these delusional traditions come from?
In a special edition of This Week In History, we will take a look at the real story behind Halloween and uncover the secrets behind the most puzzling practices of the spooky season. So let’s dive in!
On October 31, 2000 B.C. — 4,021 years ago — the ancient Celtic people of the British Isles and northwestern Europe celebrated the feast of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).
Before we go any further, it should be noted that very few records exist from the ancient Celtic world, so the exact date of the celebration is not known. That being said, the Celtic word “Samhain,” translates to “Summer’s End,” meaning the original feast was a harvest celebration meant to mark the end of the growing season and the start of the new year.
Instead of Jan. 1, the Celts celebrated New Year’s in the fall. And per Celtic tradition, the new year marked the one time of the year where the dead could return to Earth and walk among the living. While this is a similar custom to that observed in Latin America on Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), Samhain was by no means an endearing holiday, meant to welcome back deceased relatives. Instead, it was something to be feared. Ancient Celts would stay inside for as long as possible, leaving food and drinks outside on the doorstep to keep the ghosts and spirits at bay. If it was absolutely necessary to leave one’s house, they would put an ugly mask on, so the supernatural would think they were one of them.
On October 31, 600 A.D. — 1,421 years ago — the Roman Catholic Church rebranded Samhain as “All Hallow’s Eve.”
To say that Christianity spread quickly throughout the ancient world would be an understatement, because it was practically a religious wildfire. Missionaries like St. Patrick brought Christian teachings from the Holy Land and Rome to the far reaches of the Emerald Isle, and while the ancient Celts and Romans were quick to abandon their gods, they did not want to abandon their festivals and celebrations.
To accommodate this and bring more people into the early Roman Catholic Church, generations of popes placed religious holidays on top of pre-existing pagan holidays like Samhain. Fun fact: many historians believe that Jesus was born in April, yet Christmas is celebrated in December because many ancient cultures already had major holidays around the start of winter, so the pope told them to keep celebrating, but do it in the name of Jesus.
The Roman Catholic Church created the three-day festival of Allhallowtide (hallow meaning holy), beginning with All Hallow’s Eve on Oct. 31, All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2. Essentially the Church figured that if so many people of the ancient world wanted to celebrate dead people, they might as well celebrate dead saints, and thus the tradition was enshrined into religious law.
Let’s fast forward a couple of centuries and move across the pond from Western Europe to North America in the colonial period.
While many Americans, particularly New Englanders, associate Halloween with the witches and ghosts of the original 13 colonies (thank you “Hocus Pocus”), the Puritans who established the New England colonies actually despised the holiday. The Puritans, as their name suggests, sought to “purify” Christianity and rid their church of frivolous festivals and entertainment. Such was the same in England ever since King Henry VIII (you know, the one with six wives) broke away from the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation.
Halloween was falling out of favor in the early United States, until Irish and Scottish immigrants came pouring into the country in the 19th century. That’s right, the same immigrants who brought St. Patrick’s Day across the Atlantic also invigorated America’s love for Halloween.
Descendants of the ancient Celts, the Irish and Scottish brought the tradition of playing tricks on others and carving ugly faces into turnips. Of course, pumpkins were far more plentiful in the Northeast where the Irish primarily settled, so the turnip was traded for the pumpkin.
Halloween in the 1800s and early 1900s was nothing like we know it today, however. Halloween was actually a feared holiday by the middle and upper classes since street gangs, typically children, would wear masks and vandalize property. By the 1920s and ‘30s, some homeowners began leaving out cookies, cakes and other treats as a bribe to save their house from tricksters. By the end of the 1930s, parents nationwide encouraged treat-giving on Halloween to end the tradition of vandalism. The phrase “trick-or-treat” was officially coined in 1934.
In the 1950s, candy companies like Hershey’s and Reese’s capitalized on Halloween, marketing their products as the perfect treat for young passersby, culminating in the 1970s when candy became the only thing trick-or-treaters looked for. Of course, the occasional pencil or toothbrush still seems to slip in.
And thus, an American holiday was born. Last year, Americans spent more than $8 billion on Halloween costumes, decorations, greeting cards and candy; experts predict Americans will spend more than $10 billion in 2021. Halloween is now the second-largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
Wow, that was a lot! I will end by wishing a Happy Halloween to all, and to all a good week!