Tricks, Treats & Traditions: The (Not-So-Horrifying) History of Halloween
It’s that time of year, girls and ghouls. Halloween is fast approaching, a time when people of all ages love to parade around in spooky (or sexy) costumes, binge on Halloween candy, carve pumpkins, trick-or-treat and tell ghost stories to unwitting children. And each of those Halloween traditions has a lengthy backstory that dates back generations if not thousands of years. So as All Hallows Eve comes gliding in with the fog, let’s explore the truly interesting history of Halloween.
Do you know why Halloween is held on Oct. 31 each year? Or why bats, witches and ghosts are affiliated with the spooky season? Before you hop around between parties later this month, brush up on the history of Halloween and you’ll know why those parties are such a time-honored tradition today.
Let’s dive into the history of Halloween, our favorite holiday:
What we call Halloween goes all the way back to the Celtic calendar, which divided any given year into a light half and a dark half. A holiday known as Samhain (pronounced like “sow-in”) signified the beginning of a year’s dark half. It was a harvest festival celebrated with bonfires on Oct. 31 to usher in the new year.
The ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain was also associated with spookiness, but not for the same reasons Halloween is today. For starters, nights were getting longer, and the weather was growing colder. But also, in a time when nothing was more important than a harvest — ya gotta have food, right? — the uncertainty of how a harvest would turn out was downright frightening. After all, if a harvest failed, people would starve and die. Hence the associations even today of Halloween with death and eerie things.
You may have also heard the idea that on Halloween the “veil” between the worlds of the living and dead is at its thinnest. Well, that’s an idea that comes from ancient Celtic tribes, too. It was a result of the transition between the light and the dark. The living and the dead could officially commingle, which is where many traditions in the history of Halloween come from.
Even the association of bats with Halloween comes from those Celtic nights. The big bonfires they would build for Samhain would allow them to see nocturnal animals they couldn’t see otherwise — like bats. They didn’t have electricity, after all, so without a natural flame, how would they see dark, flying creatures? There’s also the fact that most bats eat insects, which were attracted to the bonfires’ light.
While many people recognize Halloween as a bunch of pagan traditions, ironically we have Christianity to thank for preserving those ideas. When the Church came along, it made a conscious decision to preserve pagan traditions (albeit reimagining them) instead of stamping them out. That made it easier to convert people, which was long Christianity’s ultimate goal.
Where does the Name “Halloween” come from?
To understand how the Church co-opted paganism to help create what we call Halloween, you have to know a bit about the Pagan holiday called Lemuria, celebrated on May 13. It was the spookiest of all days, when the dead would return to haunt the living, and the living would attempt to placate them with sweet offerings. But when the Church co-opted Lemuria in 609 A.D., the day was re-named “All Saints Day” and the Church recognized it as a day to celebrate the holiest of dead Christians, even keeping some of the Pagan traditions.
But eventually All Saints Day (also known as All Hallows Day) was moved to Nov. 1. Why? Well, it was basically an attempt to overshadow the Pagan holiday of Samhain. And it wasn’t long before Samhain — the day before All Hallows Day — was re-named “All Hallows Eve,” which itself was later shortened to just “Halloween.”
The Church also created a new holiday — All Souls Day, celebrated on November 2. The three days became synonymous with death and all its creepy undertones.
How did Trick-or-Treating originate?
All Souls Day (Nov. 2) was a day when the Church asked Christians to pray for “lost souls” that were trapped in purgatory (not a great place to be). And it was literally a numbers game, meaning that if a soul received enough prayers, it would fly up into heaven. So in order to game the system, a scheme was devised to increase the number of prayers coming a particular soul’s way. It was literally called “souling.” It was something children would do, and it forms a huge part of the history of Halloween.
“Souling” consisted of children going around town and knocking on doors. In exchange for “soul cakes” (spiced cakes with raisins), the children would pray for a household’s dead, aiming to get that soul un-trapped and on its way to heaven. This Medieval Christian tradition is a precursor to what we now call “trick-or-treating” (which is actually a less-than-100-year-old term).
The “trick” aspect of trick-or-treating in Halloween tradition came much later, namely when American immigrants brought ashore longstanding traditions of being destructive and generally mischievous on Halloween. It eventually became tradition for masked adolescents (disguised in order to conceal their identity, and armed with rocks and eggs) to unleash on their towns for one night only.
Around the 1920s in America, Halloween “tricks” escalated to full-on crime and vandalism, with countless acts of destruction resulting in injuries and even deaths. Kids would derail streetcars, start fires and throw rocks through windows — a dangerous escalation from stomping pumpkins. In many parts of the country, Halloween became known as “Mischief Night” or “Hell Night.”
Halloween of 1933 was famously dubbed “Black Halloween” by newspapers because of the amount of destruction on that one night. So what was a town or city to do? Well, what better way to curb children’s base instincts than to keep them busy? Many towns and cities attempted to tame Halloween by introducing parties, dances, costume contests and the like. Halloween eventually became a social occasion instead of a night welcoming destruction.
The “treat” aspect of trick-or-treating was little more than a way to bribe children and keep them from vandalizing one’s property. (“Here’s some delicious candy! Just please don’t egg my house.”) Obviously Halloween quickly became a favorite tradition of candy companies and chocolate bar manufacturers.
Why are witches associated with Halloween?
It would be an understatement to say that people in Medieval times were a suspicious bunch, believing that demons and other evil entities were responsible for all the bad things in the world. And they got a sense of security from the idea that if a certain “evil entity” were a flesh-and-blood person, they could be killed in order to right things in the world.
It was the “witch scare” of the 16th century that basically epitomizes the stereotypical image of the witch we connote with Halloween. At that time, suspicious eyes turned to those who had been previously thought of as healers. They were often eccentric women who lived alone and who peddled in passed-down folklore, healing brews and elixirs. They most assuredly used brooms and cauldrons, and pointed hats were pretty common among Medieval country women.
As with many elements that make up the history of Halloween, it wasn’t long before those symbols came to mean something nefarious, and even today witches are characterized by brooms, bubbling cauldrons and black pointed hats.
While early depictions of witches were typically of old, unattractive women with warts and large noses, it was the early 1900s — thanks to the eventual commercialization of Halloween — when they were reimagined as attractive, seductive women.
“The Ghost Story” is a time-honored Halloween tradition
While ghost stories of course do not originate with the American Civil War, that was a time period in the Unites States that really lent itself to spooky storytelling. The war, which took place between 1861–1865, resulted in many dead soldiers (over a half-million), and oftentimes the bodies themselves were unidentifiable and unclaimed.
Households never knew with certainty whether their loved ones were truly dead — an idea that lends itself to “ghost stories” in which loved ones finally travel home. The first Halloween ghost stories were about beloved soldiers coming home to their loved ones.
After the Civil War, Scots and Irish immigrants made their way to America, and with them they brought traditions now commonly associated with the Halloween we know — like the idea of petulant, disruptive ghosts that liked to terrorize the living, especially children, on Halloween. The Scots referred to them as “bogeys” or “boogeymen.”
The white sheet we’ve come to associate with ghosts is a reference to the shroud that would have covered a dead body upon its burial.
How do Jack-O-Lanterns fit into the history of Halloween?
The very idea of a pumpkin with a face carved into it is something that originated in Europe and eventually made its way to America. Jack O’Lantern was an actual person, according to legend, and he was a deviant guy — so evil that he was thrown out of hell, but not before the Devil scooped up a few embers and gave them to him. Jack put the embers inside a hallowed-out turtle (not a pumpkin!) and his spirit walked around with what resembled the very first Jack-O-Lantern.
In the “Old Country,” European children used to carve faces into turnips and light them with candles. When that tradition came stateside, it didn’t take long for American kids to instead use big, round pumpkins (which come into harvest in the fall) instead of small, hard turnips.
A lit-up Jack-O-Lantern on a stick — popping up in a window or around a corner — was a common tool for prankster children to scare people on Halloween. And soon Halloween officially had its trademark. These days the Jack-O-Lantern might be the most commonly recognized symbol of Halloween, though much of its frightful reputation is long gone.