Culture

The Fascinating History Of Halloween

By Meghan Dillon··  5 min read
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It’s the end of October, which can only mean one thing: Halloween is upon us.

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays because I love all things spooky, from horror movies to ghost stories. As a kid, I spent the holiday trick-or-treating with my sisters and friends, and now I celebrate it as an adult by dressing up, eating Halloween candy, and watching Halloween movies.

I’m not alone in loving Halloween, as it’s one of the most popular holidays among young adults. Though it’s widely celebrated, very few know the fascinating history behind the holiday, which spans from Ancient Europe to post-war America.

Where Halloween Came From

The story of Halloween goes back to the time of the Celts, an ancient ethnic group that is mainly associated with Ireland and the rest of the British Isles. Halloween started with the Celtic festival Samhain, which was on October 31 and celebrated the end of the summer harvest. The Celts also believed that the dead returned to the living world on the night of Samhain. The Celts lit bonfires and wore masks to avoid ghosts and set out food to prevent ghosts from bothering them, but the pagan holiday faded into the past when Christianity came to Ireland. Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century alongside Saint Patrick, but the Celts still celebrated Samhain for a few more centuries. 

Halloween started with the Celtic festival Samhain, which marked the end of the summer harvest on October 31.

In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III named November 1 All Saints Day, a holiday to commemorate all the saints of the Church. All Saints Day translates to Alholowmesse,” making October 31 All Hallow’s Eve. The Pope also made November 2 All Souls Day, a holiday to remember the dead and pray for them. The Catholic Church still embraced some of the pagan origins of Samhain, including associations with celebrating the dead. Folklorist Jack Santino writes, “The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong, and perhaps too basic to the human psyche, to be satisfied with the new, more abstract Catholic feast honoring saints.”

These traditions were celebrated in Ireland and the rest of the British Isles for centuries to come, but the concept of modern Halloween didn’t come until Irish immigration to America began in the 19th century.

The Roots of Trick-or-Treating and Halloween Costumes

Before the arrival of Irish immigrants, there were little to no All Hallow’s Eve celebrations due to the strict Protestant beliefs of the majority of the colonies. However, it was partially celebrated in Southern colonies through telling ghost stories to children.

Irish immigration to the United States increased dramatically in the mid-19th century due to the Great Potato Famine, and the Irish brought their traditions with them, including Catholicism and All Hallows Eve. The holiday had changed through the years, and many children used the holiday as an excuse to pull pranks on neighbors and engage in violence. One of the most prominent pop-culture examples of how dangerous these pranks could get is seen in Meet Me In St. Louis, when the neighborhood boys convince Tootie to prank a neighbor, and hilarity ensues.

This was the start of trick-or-treating in the United States. While children caused mayhem on Halloween night, neighbors began offering them treats in exchange for not pranking them (hence, “trick-or-treat”). This was popularized in the post-war era, for the pranks increased as suburban America grew.

However, the origins of trick-or-treating can be traced back to the Middle Ages. After the Christianization of Samhain, children across Ireland and the British Isles would visit wealthy neighbors on All Hallows Eve. In exchange for praying for the souls of their dead loved ones (the practice was called “souling”), the wealthy neighbors would give the children food.

The history of the Halloween costume can also be traced back to Samhain. The Celts would wear animal masks to help scare away evil spirits, and the witch was associated with Halloween due to the rise of witch trials in the late Middle Ages. People in the Middle Ages believed that witches were in league with the devil, and nothing caused fear and superstition as much as witches.

The Celts would wear animal masks to help scare away evil spirits during Samhain.

Modern Halloween costumes can be traced to the Irish immigrant children who would wear masks while pulling pranks on their neighbors. In the 1920s, the practice was embraced through costume parties. In the post-war era, children began wearing costumes related to scary stories (vampires, witches, ghosts, etc.) to go trick-or-treating, and the rise of pop-culture and Hollywood popularized costumes like superheroes and princesses.

What about Pumpkins?

We associate pumpkins with fall and Halloween, and there’s an interesting story behind why. It started with the Irish legend of "Stingy Jack," an Irish man who tricked the Devil one too many times. He paid for his sins with this life, only he was not allowed to enter either heaven or hell after he died. Condemned to an eternity of purgatory on earth, he hid his identity with a carved-out turnip and used a burning clump of coal to see in the dark. 

Irish and Scottish children used to draw faces on turnips on All Hallow’s Eve to celebrate.

This is the origin story behind the Jack O’Lantern, and Irish and Scottish children used to draw faces on turnips on All Hallow’s Eve to celebrate. They didn’t use pumpkins until they arrived in the United States, making it the signature symbol (and fruit) of autumn and Halloween.

Closing Thoughts

From the ancient Celts to medieval Catholics to modern Americans, Halloween is a day dedicated to trick-or-treating and telling ghost stories, demonstrating that our interest in the supernatural and the otherworldly is a natural part of humanity.

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