The History of Halloween: The Chilling History of 14 Halloween Traditions
Now a night of frolic for children, this autumn holiday is actually a mashup of old rituals remembering the dead and celebrating the spirit world, with a bit of mischief thrown in.
What is the history of Halloween?
You may have found yourself wondering what is the history of Halloween, and why we celebrate it. Unlike many other holidays, there’a no major significant religious or historical event that this holiday celebrates. So why do we celebrate Halloween? And how did Halloween traditions become traditions in the first place?
Well, although it’s a secular holiday today, the history of Halloween has roots in ancient religious and spiritual traditions that have evolved over time. The original Halloween, dating back to ancient times, was a pagan celebration called Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”). The ancient Celts celebrated this holiday right around the end of October into early November (sound familiar?) because it was halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. The purpose of the celebration was to welcome the harvest season as well as the “dark half” of the year. Another component involved honoring deceased ancestors and providing offerings to departed spirits; the celebrants believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was especially weak during this time. Again, we see this influence in today’s Halloween traditions and symbols like ghosts, zombies, and Ouija boards.
As the influence of Catholicism spread, the Catholic church tweaked many pagan holidays like Samhain to make them religion-friendly. The Catholic All Saints’ Day, which remembers saints and martyrs, falls on November 1, and All Souls’ Day, which honors the faithful departed, is November 2—two holidays that have to do with death and the afterlife. The night before All Saints’ Day was called All Hallow’s Eve (“hallow” meaning holy), which turned into “Halloween.” The history of halloween dates back centuries, and its origins aren’t all about collecting candy. After you’ve learned all about Halloween traditions, read about some creepy real events that actually happened on Halloween.
History of Halloween timeline
~100 BC: Ancient Celts celebrate Samhain with bonfires, feasts, and offerings to the souls of the dead.
700s: During the Middle Ages, the Catholic influence spreads to pagan holidays like Samhain. Pope Gregory III names November 1 All Saints’ Day.
1000 AD: The Church names November 2 All Souls’ Day; October 31 evolves into All Hallows’ Eve, creating a three-night religious celebration in Europe.
1800s: Irish and Scottish immigrants migrate to the United States, bringing the precursors of many of the Halloween traditions we know and love today.
Early 1900s: Halloween becomes popular for the teenage crowd, with high schools and rotary clubs throwing parties.
1930s: The Great Depression devastates the United States and Halloween celebrations take a dip; “celebrations” often come in the form of destructive pranks.
1950s: Suburbanization and the end of WWII sugar rations causes candy production, specifically for Halloween, to blow up; trick-or-treating as we know it today begins to emerge.
2019: Americans spend an average of $2.6 billion on Halloween candy!
This history of Halloween timeline focuses on Halloween in the United States, but there are lots of fascinating Halloween traditions from all around the world.
History of Halloween tradition #1: Ghosts and spirits
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All Saints’ Day was actually originally celebrated in May but moved to November in the ninth century to incorporate the Celtic holiday of Samhain at the end of October. (Plus, it just makes sense to celebrate the dead in autumn, when the leaves die and fall from the trees.) Samhain, which marked the conclusion of the harvest season, was also the Celtic new year, the end of the summer and the beginning of the dark and deadly season of winter. At this time, the Celts believed, the veil between life and death was at its thinnest, and spirits may travel between the two worlds. Find out how All Souls’ Day is celebrated around the world.
History of Halloween tradition #2: Trick-or-treating
During Samhain, the Celts offered food as a way to ward off evil spirits. In the Middle Ages on the eve of All Saints’ Day, the poor would go “souling,” visiting houses and offering prayers for the family’s dead in exchange for food, called “soul cakes.” As Irish and Scottish immigrants brought Halloween traditions to America in the 19th century, the holiday began to be associated with mischievousness, and trick-or-treating became what one historian calls an “extortion deal:” Give us treats, or we’ll play a prank on you. As the vandalism became more serious, in the 1930s communities started encouraging trick-or-treating as we know it today in order to keep youngsters out of trouble. These are the best neighborhoods across the country for trick-or-treating.
History of Halloween tradition #3: Dressing in costume
To protect themselves from the potentially evil spirits that may appear during Samhain, the Celts wore animal skin costumes to hide in plain sight. If they looked like a fellow spirit, they believed, it would be safe to go outside. Later, a variant of souling called “guising” emerged in Scotland, in which children dressed up and asked neighbors for food or money in exchange for a song or poem. In nineteenth-century America, masked Halloween pranksters were harder to identify. Find out the secrets Halloween costume designers want you to know.
History of Halloween tradition #4: Eating candy
In the early days of trick-or-treating, the goodies weren’t necessarily candy. After the end of sugar rationing in World War II, candy companies realized the money-making power of Halloween. The baby boom was in full effect, and suburban neighborhoods perfect for trick-or-treating were growing. Small, affordable candies became the thing to give, especially as the 1970s and ’80s led rise to fears of the dangers of homemade or unwrapped sweets. Mass-marketed, individually wrapped treats seemed the best way to keep kids safe. Today, the National Confectioners Association estimates 77 percent of Americans will purchase Halloween candy, spending $2.7 billion a year. Speaking of candy corn, here are some corny Halloween puns you need to learn.
History of Halloween tradition #5: Candy corn
Although Halloween is associated with candy, most candy is not specifically associated with Halloween—except the ever-present candy corn. The love-it-or-hate-it sweet, with its seasonal stripes of yellow, orange, and white, was actually originally meant to look like corn kernels for chicken feed. Sounds appetizing, right? The confection was created by candy maker George Renniger in Philadelphia and first sold in 1898. Although not initially marketed for Halloween, candy corn’s harvest theme made it a perfect fit as trick-or-treating became more prevalent. Find out the most popular Halloween candy in every state.
History of Halloween tradition #6: Halloween parties
Thanks to the popularity of trick-or-treating, Halloween is seen as a celebration for kids today. But for those adults who still get into the spirit, you’re not alone: Grown-up Halloween parties have been around since the holiday came to America before it became focused on the young. Based on the old Samhain feasts, these gatherings featured autumnal foods, like nuts and fruits, and party games. Activities associated with the spiritual, such as fortune-telling and ghost stories, were also often part of the fun. Try these Halloween party games to get you in the spooky spirit.
History of Halloween tradition #7: Bobbing for apples
Not surprisingly, one of the most time-honored Halloween party games centered around the classic fruit of harvest time, the apple, a symbol of fertility that features in many fortune-telling activities. One variation of bobbing for apples purports that whoever can grab the apple with their teeth will marry first; other versions have the apples marked with initials, indicating a successful bobbers’ future mate. The apple tradition may also have some roots in the Roman harvest festival celebrating Pomona, the goddess of fruit and orchards.
History of Halloween tradition #8: Carving pumpkins
While today’s jack-o-lanterns tend to lean towards comical, when it comes to the history of Halloween traditions like this one, there’s a good mix of spooky in the story. According to the original Irish legend, Stingy Jack tried to cheat the devil out of his soul. But when Jack died, heaven didn’t want him either, so the devil cursed him to roam the earth using a carved-out turnip as a lantern. A tradition began of carving scary faces into turnips, beets, or potatoes and putting them in the window to scare away “Jack of the Lantern” and other spirits. That’s right, it may be decorative gourd season today, but the first jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips. When Halloween came to America, people figured out that pumpkins make even better jack-o-lanterns. Try these genius hacks for pumpkin carving you’ll use from now on.