The History of Halloween

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By C.W.S.

It's almost Halloween again and this new fall feeling has me spreading fake spiderweb across my front porch and planning the best ways to scare kids who are trick-or-treating in my neighborhood. I believe this is my duty as a fun adult, to keep the spirit alive. I have already gone to a couple haunted houses, watched all the classic Halloween movies, and planned out my elaborate costume. I know that most of you reading this will thankfully never outgrow Halloween, and I am grateful for each of you. But lets be adults about it and learn something too. 

Samhain: Early Origins

What we know as modern Halloween has its deepest roots in a Pagan celebration called Samhain. This holiday was celebrated in what is now present-day Ireland, beginning over 2,000 years ago. Known as the Feast of the Dead, it was the most important day of the year for Pagans, falling around the first of November. It marked the end of summer and the start of winter, which meant the start of more and more darkness. It meant that it was time to gather what was needed to survive the winter.

Samhain was a big party in honor of death: the one day of the year when the veil was lifted between the living and those who had passed on. Recently dead friends and relatives were considered present with the living, along with demons, ghosts, fairies and other mythical creatures, while the towns sacrificed animals, vegetables, and fruits, and lit huge bonfires.

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Though little is known about these celebrations and scholars disagree about many of the details, there is evidence that some of our Halloween traditions may date back to Samhain. During festival time, people would go door to door dressed in disguises, and would recite verses or put on short plays to those that opened the door in exchange for food. It is thought that they were perhaps mimicking the spirits of the dead with their costumes.

Despite the subject, there was nothing sad about this day. Pagans had a different relationship to the idea of death; they saw it as an inevitable and precious part of life, and revered their aging elders as having great wisdom. Halloween is similar to Samhain; it is the one time of year that it is acceptable to make light of death, to make it into a party. Though we do not believe that the dead come back to party with us, we do allow ourselves to entertain the idea of death, and play around with it, something deemed generally unacceptable for rest of the year.

All Saints Day

The Romans conquered Celtic lands by 43 AD and ruled the area for the next 400 years. They combined Samhain with two Roman holidays, Feralia, a late-October date that honored the dead, and a date to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Apples and nuts were popular during Samhain as well, and the classic Halloween game of bobbing for apples may come from the combination of these autumnal celebrations.

Christian missionaries began arriving and forcing change onto the Celts. Christians worked to erase Pagan holidays like Samhain, equating their religion with the devil. Those who continued to practice Paganism were branded as witches and forced into hiding.

In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV created All Saints Day, hoping to totally replace Samhain with a new Christian holiday. The idea was to honor those saints and martyrs that had passed on, a substitute for the Pagan’s Feast of the Dead. To further this aim, the church created All Souls Day that fell on November 2nd, and closely mimicked Samhain: bonfires, costumes, and games. People dressed up as angels and devils, saints and martyrs. The celebration was sometimes called All-hallows, and the night before it, All-Hallows-Eve, which eventually became the modern Halloween. The hope was that this replacement would get rid of Samhain forever, but as we can see, it still lives on in some of its form today.

American Halloween

 An artist rendering of "Gate Night"

An artist rendering of "Gate Night"

In the early stages of American colonialism, Halloween was discouraged by strict Puritan sensibilities. But come the middle of the 1800s, Scottish and Irish immigrants brought over their version of Halloween, which included pranks that sometimes verged on the dangerous.

“In Ireland, boys would carve spooky faces in turnips to scare unwary travelers, and they would tie strings to cabbages and pull them through fields to scare people,” notes Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. “The Scots had one really obnoxious prank where they would pull up a cabbage stalk, get it smoking and shove it up to a keyhole at someone’s door so that when that person came home, they would find a house filled with this noxious-smelling vapor.”

Stories of teenagers and children leaving dummies on train tracks to scare conductors and passengers illustrate how far these pranks could go. Kids pushed over sometimes-occupied outhouses, tore up farmers’ crops, and led their livestock up onto their barn roofs. “Gate night” was one nickname given to October 31st, due to the sheer number of gates that were stolen off their hinges by pranksters. Generally, people accepted these pranks in good spirits, as long as they were contained to Halloween.

“At first, the pranking was pretty innocent and limited to rural places,” Lisa Morton stated. “But as metropolitan areas expanded, kids took the pranking into cities and it became more destructive with setting fires, breaking glass, and tripping pedestrians.” In the early 1900s, some residents began arming themselves during Halloween, ready to protect their property from more extreme pranks. By the time the Great Depression hit, the pranks got more and more dangerous as towns considered stopping the holiday all together.

 Halloween costumes in 1943

Halloween costumes in 1943

Instead of banning Halloween, which would have perhaps had the opposite of the intended effect, Morton says that adults instead attempted to change the way kids celebrated by taking control back: “There’s not a lot of money during the Great Depression so people pooled their resources and staged house-to-house parties The first house might give out costumes such as a white sheet to be ghosts, or soot to smudge on kids’ faces. The next house might give out treats, the next might have a basement set up as a tiny haunt. This starts to morph into kids getting dressed up and going house to house trick-or-treating.”

The taming of Halloween certainly worked, and by the 1950s trick-or-treating had replaced pranking as the core tradition. But in parts of the East Coast and Midwest, October 30th is still known as Mischief Night, which allows kids to have their cake and eat it too: one night of pranks and one night of collecting treats.

When I was growing up in the 90s, kids lived for Halloween. I definitely threw an egg or two, TP-ed the house of a local mean girl, and relished in the chance to run around town in the dark, free of parental supervision. It felt like the one night that belonged to us, a chance to live in chaos for a few hours, to laugh at what we were normally not allowed to laugh at, to dress up as the dark things we weren’t allowed to talk about. But things have changed a lot since the 90s, and parents tend to keep their kids on leashes far tighter than mine was. I get it; but it’s a shame in many ways. Kids and teenagers are the best at welcoming the darkness, at celebrating chaos, at partying in honor of things adults choose to ignore. No matter how it changes in the years to come, Long live Halloween. May it be here to stay.