Spanning over 2000 years of traditions, the history of Halloween is richer than that of the commercialised American customs which are commonly portrayed on TV.
Halloween is an annual holiday celebrated on the eve of October 31st. Most celebrate by dressing up in costumes, watching scary movies and carving pumpkins. But they fail to grasp the depth of history behind the annual holiday.
The Ancient Traditions
The holiday is thought to have originated from the Celtic festival of Samhain. It was believed that on this day the barrier between the world and the afterlife became weak, allowing the dead to return. With this belief came raging bonfires to ward off evil spirits and disguises to prevent the dead from recognizing the living.
In the first century CE, the Roman festival of Feralia and it’s traditions were adopted into general society after the Roman conquests. Much like Samhain, Feralia commemorated the movement of the dead to the afterlife.
In addition to this, it was a time to celebrate Pomona, the goddess of the harvest, whose symbol was the apple.
In the Seventh Century CE, Pope Boniface IV established All Saints’ Day on the first of November. This caused the day before to become hallowed, hence it was often referred to as All-Hallows and later becoming shortened to Halloween, giving the holiday its common name.
The Catholic holiday of ‘All Souls’ Day’ on the second of November was popularised around the same time to honour the dead. On All Souls’ Days, families would give pastries to the poor in return for them to pray for the families dead relatives. This was encouraged by the church to present an alternative to leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. Following the Reformation, Halloween became a largely secular celebration across Britain.
In the early American colonies, Halloween was typically not allowed in the puritan communities, yet remained a popular festival in the state of Maryland. The festivities typically involved “play parties” where the neighbourhood would gather to share stories and tell fortunes, along with singing and dancing. By the mid-1800s, the festivities spread, though were not widely celebrated elsewhere in the country.
North American Developments
Halloween became more widely popularized with the influx in immigration during the potato famine, which brought with it new enthusiasm for the holiday.
Though the festivities remained much the same, The National Republican (October 31, 1861) noted a popular new activity, ”Young America.. has invented a way of its own for the observance of All Hallow’s Eve…to go around from house to house, and pelt with cabbages, turnips…the luckless servant who may chance to come to the door.”
Many forgotten rituals focused on young women catching a glimpse of their future by staring into mirrors while holding candles, or egg yolks in water.
These existed along with competitions to see who would marry first by apple bobbing or by winning a chestnut hunt. Though apple bobbing has persisted, it no longer carries the same meaning. The activity is typically attributed to Pomona due to her symbol being the apple and likely has an even older lost meaning.
Jack-o-lanterns, though popularized in the United States as pumpkins, initially began as turnips. The legend behind it is of a man called “Stingy Jack” who tricked the Devil, and on his death was not permitted entry to heaven or hell. Instead, he was left to roam the earth with nothing but a lump of burning coal, which he placed into a carved turnip to light his way. The frightening faces of modern jack-o-lanterns are attributed to the initial tradition of scaring Jack away from one’s home.
In the early 1900s, Halloween parties became the most common celebrations, along with a sudden increase in vandalism around the season. The Columbia Evening Missourian (Monday, October 31, 1921) cites: “…all entrances to Academic Hall were blocked by a systematic packing of furniture… Classes were suspended for two days on account of the efficient work of the student body.”
Parents were encouraged to make the holiday more kid-friendly, leading to many of the more superstitious and religious elements fading. The holiday became directed toward a younger demographic in the 1950s to reduce the vandalism that plagued the 1920s and 1930s.
It was during this time that trick or treating was also revived. Though no longer in the form of giving to the poor, but as a cost-effective way to involve neighbourhoods in the festivities.
Halloween continues to be an important holiday in the United States, even going as far as to move the end of daylight saving time. The Halloween Safety Act of 1999, an amendment to the Uniform Time Act of 1966 to have daylight saving time ends on the first Sunday of November, where it stays to this day.
An estimated 6 billion dollars are spent on Halloween in the United States, making it the second-largest commercial holiday. One that has a very rich history spanning two thousand years of traditions and cultural beliefs.