Category Archives: Halloween history

Halloween’s History in United States of America

Halloween as everybody knows it today is the result of the “melting pot” called United States of America. The mélange of traditions, religious rituals and pagan superstitions combined with an ever-growing media industry promoting the holiday has resulted in an extremely fun and popular Halloween celebration suitable for all types of people.

While nowadays Halloween is a universally accepted celebration, its beginnings were rather timid. New England population was mainly Protestant and did not celebrate Halloween or any other religious holiday related to saintly figures. Therefore, in the 1800s Halloween did not have too many adepts in this part of the world. In Maryland, however, the situation was more favorable for Halloween, with people gathering together to celebrate the harvest season. The “play parties” (as these gatherings were called), consisted of bonfires, telling stories with ghosts and dead spirits as central characters, singing, dancing and foretelling the future. Although these manifestations were similar to Halloween traditions and were held on 31st of October, the “play parties” were not considered descendants or reinterpretations of the Halloween holiday. Moreover, people were celebrating the end of labor season, the harvesting and the good crops harvested during autumn.

The Irish and English immigrants started walking door to door on Halloween asking for sweets or money in 19th century.

The middle of 19th century brought an increase in popularity for Halloween. American communities were growing fonder of the celebration and the continuous arrival of people from the British Islands fired people’s taste for Halloween’s traditions. In fact, many historians claim that Halloween’s popularity boosted in and after 1846, during the potato famine from Ireland. Chased away from home by the food scarcity, the Irish immigrants found their way towards the American continent and brought along their traditions and superstitions.The Irish and English immigrants started walking from door to door on Halloween, asking for money and sweets on Halloween night, keeping their home traditions alive. The trick-or-treating was soon taken over the established American inhabitants too. Yet the traditions was seen as a way of socializing, rather than a religious manifestation. Halloween’s recognition as a national holiday was only one step away. This step was taken at the end on 19th century, when the American communities have stripped Halloween of all its “devilish” and “ghostly” influences and transformed it into a holiday suitable for children and teenagers. Costumed parades, merry family gatherings and fun parties filled with seasonal foods and sweets have taken over the tradition of telling ghostly stories around the bonfire. Halloween was no longer a religious holiday marked by pagan superstitions, but a time of joy and merriment.

Trick-or-treating has become increasingly popular amongst children and teenagers. However, the 1920s and 1930s were marked by violent pranks masked under the Halloween tradition. The communities were exposed to acts of vandalism and the police found it more and more difficult to keep the teenagers under control, so decided that Halloween should be celebrated in the center of the town/village. Sweet treats were prepared and bonfires were organized for the members of the communities attending the celebration. This decision diminished significantly vandalism and violent actions, making Halloween a socially accepted holiday.

Children in Halloween costumes

Children in Halloween costumes

However, because of the demographic boom registered in the middle 20th century, the town center became an outdated solution. Children and teenager celebrations were now held in schools and kindergartens in order to better control the youngsters and organize diverse activities that will increase their interest in this holiday. Trick-or-treating was revived as a method of sharing the joy of Halloween with the entire neighborhood.

American Particularities for Halloween

  • In Ohio, Massachusetts and Iowa, the night in which children go trick-or-treating is also called “Beggars Night”.
  • The carved pumpkin is an American addition to the Halloween holiday. The pumpkins replaced the traditional turnips used by Irish and English people which were not available on the American continent. The immigrants discovered that pumpkins are larger and easier to carve, making perfect lanterns.
  • The “trick-or-treat” phrase first appeared in 1934 in an article published in a local newspaper from Portland, Oregon. The article told citizens about the vandalism from the Halloween night and informed people of police’s efforts to keep the phenomenon under control.
  • Anoka, Minnesota is the auto-proclaimed “Halloween Capital of the World” as it was the first town to officially organize a communal Halloween celebration. The authorities decided to gather people in the center of the town to prevent youngsters from letting the cows loose to run on the Main Street. Salem, Massachusetts is a strong competitor for this title.
  • UNICEF encourages children to raise funds for their peers in need by collecting money for Halloween instead of the traditional candies. It all began in 1950 when a Sunday school from Philadelphia decided to raise funds for the needy children in the area. They raised $17 which was sent to UNICEF. Impressed by their gesture, UNICEF started their own campaign in 1955 in which schools, parents and churches were involved. Children willing to part-take this cause should ask for the black and orange UNICEF boxes and materials explaining the campaign.

Nowadays Halloween is America’s second largest holiday (after Christmas) generating over $6.9 billions every year, with an average of $44 spent in each house for candies and sweet treats only.

Halloween traditions

Boosting a long history and an incredible popularity, Halloween is probably one of the most complex holidays celebrated in Great Britain, Ireland, United States, Australia and New Zeeland. Dating back from antiquity, Halloween has acquired new traditions along time and has been constantly “polished” to meet contemporary demands. Among the best known Halloween traditions it is imperative to mention costuming, trick-or-treat, pumpkin carving and house decoration. These, as well as other traditions and myths will be detailed below.

Halloween Costume Tradition

Halloween costumes

The origins of the Halloween costumes seem to be as old as the holiday itself. During the Samhain festival (a holiday which is believed to be Halloween’s “ancestor”) people wore animal skin to cover their bodies and faces with the belief that this disguise will keep the evil spirits away. Furthermore, there were reports stating that during the festival men wore female clothing, while women were dressed up as men to protect themselves from the dead spirits’ spells and curses. The costume tradition was also present during the Roman period, when Samhain became a Christian holiday under the name of All Saints Eve. However, the animal skins and pagan outfits were replaced by costumes with religious theme. People dressed in saints, devils and angels to celebrate the spirits of the dead and the saintly figures.

While most people agree on this version, there are also historians claiming that the evidence backing this first story are rather insufficient. According to them the costuming tradition was born at the beginning of 20th century, when children start wondering from door to door for sweet treats and candies. Costumes were used to cover up children’s identity in case they started doing “mischiefs”. The first accounts of costuming tradition for both children and adults in the United States was in the early 1900s, while in the 1930s it was reported the first mass production of Halloween costumes.

Trick-or-treat

trick or treat

Trick or treat?

Trick-or-treat tradition is strongly interconnected with Halloween’s history. An ancient version of the trick-or-treating can be traced back in the Celtic period when people left food and wine for the spirits, in order to “tame” them and avoid falling prey to their anger. When Christians have taken over the former Celtic population, priests have encouraged people to serve the poor “soul cakes” in exchange of prayers for the deceased’s souls instead of leaving food on the door step. The poor would go from house to house in a ritual called “going a-souling” and asked for cakes and food, while promising that they will pray for the souls of the ones who died recently. The “a-souling” was rapidly embraced by children and combined with the myth of the wandering fairies, gave birth to the modern “trick-or-treat”. The myth said that on the last day of October, fairies wandered dressed as beggars from door to door to ask for food. Those who refused to serve the fairies had to deal with their spells and curses. Supposedly, this is the origin of the “trick” part of the “trick-or-treat” tradition.

Carved Pumpkins (Jack-o-Lanterns)

jack o lantern

Celts used carved turnips or potatoes and place a coal inside to lighten their way home back from Samhain celebration. The coal was lighten up from of the bonfire and taken to people’s houses to keep the evil spirits away. This pagan tradition was preserved during All Hollow’s Eve and gradually people started to leave the turnips on the doorsteps to guide spirits’ way. The pilgrims celebrating Halloween lacked turnips, but soon discovered that pumpkins were larger and easier to carve than turnips and started using them as support for the coal.

Pumpkin carving ideas:

The carved pumpkins are also known under the name of Jack-o-Lanterns after an Irish man called Stingy Jack. The legend says that Stingy Jack tricked the devil and managed to make him promise that he will not be received in Hell after his death. However, Jack was a man of bad reputation, so the gates of Heaven were also closed for him, leaving him trapped in between. He is said to wander as a ghost on the night of Halloween, trying to find his place. People leave carved pumpkins at their doorsteps to guide his way.

Apple–related Halloween traditions and superstitions

Apple-related traditions were most probably inherited from the Roman pagan festival which celebrated Goddess Pomona, the fruit and trees goddess, whose symbol was an apple. Pomona festival was held at the end of October and its superstitions were added to the Celtic Samhain.

Apple bobbing – Single men and women were encouraged to take part in a competition which involved catching apples that were floating in a water barrel with their teeth. The first to catch an apple was thought to be the next to be wed.

Apple peel – at Halloween people used to peel an apple and interpret their life expectancy according to the peel’s length. The longer the apple peel, the longer the life span.

Apple peeling in front of a lit candle – reserved to unmarried young women, this ritual was performed on Halloween night. It was believed that they would see their future husband’s face in the apple peel.

Halloween parties

Costumed parties one of people’s favorite way to spend the Halloween night. These happy gatherings originate in the antique bonfire gatherings when the Celts danced around the bonfires dressed up in animal skins.

Ghosts stories

Ghost stories, similar to many of the modern Halloween traditions, are related to the Samhain festival and to the Celtic beliefs that in the last day of October the dead arise from their tombs and wander the world, casting spells, spreading diseases, killing cattle and damaging crops.

Witches and Witchcraft Symbols

witches

Witches are now an usual, we may even say indispensable, appearance for Halloween. Whether there are sexy witches trying to tempt you with their appeasing looks or horrifying creatures decorating those dark corners of the houses, witches are part of Halloween just as much as costumes and Jack-o-Lanterns. Their history starts more recently, however, in the Middle Ages when priests started scarify single women who supposedly practiced sorcery. The stereotypical image of the witch wearing a black pointed hat, torn black clothing and stirring in her boiling cauldron is inspired by the ancient “crone”, a Celtic goddess honored during the Samhain festivities. The “crone” was an old person, symbolizing change and the turning of the season, but also wisdom and balance. She was also confounded with “Earth mother” and her boiling cauldron was considered the place where all souls will go after death. The stirring movement was a metaphor of reincarnation.

The brooms which are now traditionally part of the witch costume have their roots in medieval realties. The women convicted of sorcery were usually very poor, so they could not afford a horse to carry them, so they travelled on foot, through the woods following the shortest way to the destination. They used sticks or brooms for support and defense during their journeys.

Bats

The bonfires attracted many insects, a reason of celebration for the wandering bats looking for food. Therefore bats were a constant presence for Samhain and later on for Halloween bonfires, leading to their permanent inclusion in the holiday’s profile. It was believed that if a bat surrounded a house 3 times, somebody from that house would die in the near future. Another legend said that if the bats entered inside a house for Halloween, then that house was haunted. Furthermore, bats were thought to partake witchcraft rituals and were largely feared.

Spiders

Spiders and spider cobs are another highly popular Halloween motif, so the superstitions related to these arachnoids have not failed to make their appearance. There was a superstition according to which a spider which accidentally falls in a candle-lit lamp and it is burned by the flame indicates that witches are near, while spiders seen on Halloween meant that the soul of your deceased friend/relative is watching over you.

Halloween’s traditions, myths, superstitions and legends make it a one of a kind holiday that can be enjoyed by a large variety of people, from children to adults, from poor to rich and from religious to atheists. Its charm rests in the mixture of mundane and supernatural and in its incredible power of erasing all types of boundaries.

The history of Halloween

Torn between fun and scary traditions, between religious celebration and pagan superstition, Halloween has long surpassed the boundaries of the English speaking countries. The holiday marked by costumed parties, bonfires, carved pumpkins, wandering souls and creepy house decorations made its triumphal entry in different cultures all over the world, demolishing religious barriers and quenching people’s thirst for spooky fun. However, Halloween has passed through numerous stages and has been constantly “refined” by religious beliefs and historical conditions until it reached its current version. Its history has been marked by witchcraft, strange beliefs, pagan rituals and Christian vanities, culminating with a tribute paid to the Holly Marketing which managed to make Halloween a profitable business all over the world.

Origins

During Samhain people dressed up in animal skins to chase away the spirits and the wild animals which may get close to the celebrating crowd. There was also the habit for women to endorse manly clothing and men to dress up in women’s clothing to deceive the spirits. This is probably the first trace of the Halloween costume tradition, a tradition that will be successfully perpetuated along time.

Another Halloween tradition that it’s supposed to have its origins in this 2,000 years old festival is the pumpkin carving. The Celts took parts of the bonfire to their homes to protect their belongings from the avenging spirits, so they carved turnips, rutabagas and gourds to safely transport the fire. However, other traditions, legends and myths, including the well-known Stingy Jack’s story, are also associated with the pumpkin carving tradition.

Halloween and the Roman Conquest

In 43 A.D., the territories inhabited by Celtic population were conquered by the Romans, who brought with them their own culture civilization and beliefs. The Romans celebrated the dead on Feralia, a holiday which took place in late October, so the Celtic traditions were successfully combined with the Roman ones, bringing Halloween one step closer to the holiday we all know today. In addition to Feralia, there was another Roman holiday which impacted Halloween – Pomona. Pomona was the goddess of trees and was symbolized by an apple, therefore there are signs that the tradition of bobbing apples was a Roman ritual taken over by the Celts and incorporated in the traditional Samhain.

Halloween and Christianity

Samhain was a celebration which survived in time and the Celtic beliefs, although altered by the passing of time, continued to have a great impact on the British Islands inhabitants. Their Christianization has not affected their faith in wandering spirits, in the purifying power of bonfires and in Druidic prophecies. However, the Christian authorities were not fond of the idea that a festival reminiscent from a pagan religion was still practiced in Christian communities. Therefore the efforts of abolishing the Samhain were more intense in the 7th and 8th century, culminating with a “Christianization” of the original celebration.

In 609 A.D. Pope Boniface IV established May 13th as Day of the Dead in an attempt to erase old Celtic rituals and beliefs. However, the bonfires and costumes specific to Samhain were still seen in the last day of October, sign that the pagan celebration was held in parallel with the Christian holiday. This determined Pope Gregory III to overlap the Christian holiday with the pagan ritual, in an attempt to transform the old celebration in a religious holiday that will commemorate the dead as well as the Christian martyrs and saints. The holiday was renamed “All Saints Day” or “All Hollows Day” (or Hallowmas which in Old English stands for “All Saints Day”) and was celebrated on November 1st. Yet, the ghost of Samhain continued to hunt the Christian authorities as the English communities did not want to give up the ancient festival. Because it preceded All Hollows Day, the celebration was known as “All Hollows Eve” (which has later on evolved into “Halloween”).

Alongside the religious celebration, another Halloween tradition was born. Instead of leaving food at the doors for the wandering spirits, people were encouraged to share parts of their meals or specially baked “soul cookies” with the poor in exchange of prayers for dead’s souls. Christians believed that the dead will not step in the other world unless the living prayed intensely for their soul. In exchange of a “soul cookie” (sweet pastry) poor people promised to pray for the dead, ensuring their smooth passage in the other world. The process was called “go a-souling” and it rapidly grew popular among children too, preceding what we now know as “trick-or-treat”.

Halloween and Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes

The introduction of the Protestant religion left people without one of their favorite holidays: the All Hollow’s Eve. The Protestants did not recognize the saints and their importance in the mediation between person and God, therefore a holiday that would celebrate the saints was unnecessary. However, the holiday was reincarnated in Guy Fawkes Day in 1606, when Fawkes was executed for his attempt of removing King James from the throne on November, 5th. Bonfires (known as “bone fires”) were lit again, this time to symbolically burn Pope’s bones, while children roamed from door to door asking for money to build their own effigies. While the phrase “a penny for Guy” was popular at the time, the Guy Fawkes Day was soon left in oblivion.

Halloween is a complex holiday which has grown, evolved and refined along with the times and societies in which it has been practiced. Yet, its core always remained the same: there is a time when boundaries are blurred, social barriers are crossed and reality mingles with fantasy in a one of a kind moment. That time is called Halloween! Enjoy it!