Carving pumpkins, walking home with bags laden with sugary treats, and wearing spooky costumes are cherished traditions throughout the history of Halloween. For decades we’ve donned our favorite costume to walk around neighborhoods and collect candy. But why? How did this beloved holiday start? And where did the spooky night’s traditions originate?
Samhain: Pagan Origins
Halloween’s origins date back thousands of years to the Celtic New Year’s festival, Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”). Samhain (which means “summer’s end”) was a pagan religious celebration marking the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. However, it wasn’t all cozy fires and warm cider. The Celts believed this was when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was thinnest, and all sorts of mischievous spirits roamed about.
People darkened their faces with ashes to ward off unwanted ghostly guests and remain safe from unfriendly attention. The living would recognize the spirits of their departed loved ones and could reveal themselves as they wished. Eventually, this practice evolved into the wearing of masks, and later costumes. The practice of setting out food for loved ones may have also originated at this time.
All Hallow’s Eve: A Christian Influence
Fast forward to the 8th century and the introduction of All Saints’ Day (November 1). This was to be a celebration of Christian martyrs and saints and November 2 became All Souls Day, a day to remember the souls of the dead.
As the Church sought to replace the pagan festival with a church-sanctioned holiday, the day before All Saints’ Day – now renamed All Hallows’ Day – became All Hallows’ Eve. Eventually All Hallows’ Even became Halloween.
People continued to wear costumes, but now they dressed up as saints, angels, and, on the flip side, devils (talk about a costume party!). The tradition of going door-to-door for “soul cakes” to pray for the departed started to emerge, a precursor to our modern trick-or-treating.
A Modern Halloween: America’s Version
The history of Halloween led us to the holiday we know today in America. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish immigrants brought their Halloween traditions with them, blending them with local customs like carving pumpkins and going house to house for treats.
By the 1920s, Halloween had become more community-oriented, with town-wide celebrations and parades. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the holiday transformed into the commercialized, kid-friendly celebration we know today, complete with costumes, decorations, and, of course, haunted houses.
Beloved Traditions Through Time
Pumpkin carving can be traced back to the old Celtic practice of carving menacing faces into turnips during Samhain. These carved turnips served as protective lanterns, warding off evil spirits. However, when Irish immigrants arrived in the U.S., they chose to carve the readily available pumpkins.
While there is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating, the prevailing theory centers around European origins. In medieval England, during All Saints Day, people would go door-to-door offering to pray for the souls of the deceased in exchange for “soul cakes”. The practice later came to the U.S. and evolved into trick-or-treating, incorporating the addition of costumes in the early 20th century.
Until the mid-20th century, the treats children received when trick-or-treating were often fruit, nuts, or coins rather than candy. As the activity gained popularity in the 50s, candy companies were inspired to create small individually wrapped candies. They gained momentum out of convenience but didn’t dominate trick-or-treat hauls until the 1970s as parents feared the danger of unwrapped treats.
Wearing scary costumes on Halloween originates with the Samhain tradition of disguising yourself to hide from evil spirits. Over time it has evolved to be more playful and a fun way to embrace alter egos and pay homage to our most beloved characters.
Black Cat Superstitions:
Black cats have long been associated with superstitions and folklore, often considered omens of bad luck. This belief is rooted in medieval Europe, where black cats were seen as companions of witches and were thought to have dark powers. Over time, these superstitions made their way into Halloween traditions, adding a touch of mystery and mystique to the holiday.
Originally, candy apples were popularized at early 20th-century Halloween parties. Over time, they became a symbol of the holiday, offering a delightful blend of sweetness and nostalgia. Today, they are a classic fall treat, often enjoyed at Halloween events and festivals.
While candy corn was invented in the 1880s, it didn’t become a widespread favorite until 1898 when it was mass-produced. Originally called “Chicken Feed” it was marketed with the slogan “Something worth crowing for.” It began as an autumnal candy (corn and harvest…you get it) but became a Halloween-specific favorite when trick-or-treating became popular in the 50s.
Bobbing for Apples:
This staple Halloween party game started as a popular fortune-telling game played on All Hallows’ Eve. Apples were chosen to represent all of a woman’s suitors and the apple she bit into represented her future husband. In fact, Halloween used to be a huge (and superstitious) matchmaking opportunity for young women in the 19th century.
The Rise of Haunted Attractions
In the 20th century, Halloween began to transform, fueled by a desire for more thrilling experiences. The haunted attraction industry was born, with haunted houses, corn mazes, and eerie theme parks that allowed visitors to immerse themselves in spine-tingling narratives.
The rise of haunted attractions has allowed Halloween enthusiasts to not only celebrate the holiday but to live it. These attractions have become an essential part of Halloween, where the line between reality and fantasy blurs, and the thrill of the unknown beckons.
As is turns out, the history of Halloween is longer and more complicated than it seems. It spans from the ancient customs of Samhain, aimed at warding off mischievous spirits, to modern times when we willingly wander through darkened hallways filled with terror. Halloween has become one of the most beloved and highly celebrated holidays of the year, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Its interesting origins only make us love this spooky holiday more.