A Halloween History

A Halloween History October 14, 2013

When I was a kid, Halloween was a happy time of year. My little brother and I dressed up in costumes and went trick or treating. Our elementary school even gave us a half day that was mostly just dedicated to a party. (We even got to wear our costumes!) It was one of the best days of the year, and while I knew that “being scared” was a part of the holiday, it was a minor one. It was mostly about candy and costumes, carving pumpkins, and spending time with friends.

In 2010 Americans spent nearly two billion dollars on Halloween, as a holiday cash cow it seems to be getting bigger every year, but in some ways it feels like it’s getting smaller. Trick or treating is on the decline, and schools are facing pressure to cancel Halloween Parties during the schoolday. People are still dressing up and carving jack-o-lanterns, but Halloween has become less of a children’s night out and more of an adult celebration. Some of the decline in trick or treating is probably due to the ridiculous and untrue stories about randomly poisoned treats and razorblades in apples, and some of it’s probably due to the increased levels of isolation in America, but religious extremism is also playing a role.

George Cruikshank - Herne's Oak from 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.
George Cruikshank – Herne’s Oak from ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.

As Halloween became more and more popular in the 1970’s and 80’s a backlash began, and as the Evangelical Right grew in power that backlash become louder. Certain Christians began to actively campaign against Halloween, proclaiming it a “pagan holiday,” and pushing to have it removed from public schools in the name of separation of church and state.

What’s so weird about the Halloween backlash is that very little of Halloween is actually pagan, modern or ancient. It’s true that the Celts celebrated the harvest on October 31st (Samhain), and that the day was considered a time when the “veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest” (and even that is disputed-the Celts just didn’t leave us a lot to go on) but other than that . . . . there’s not much pagan in Halloween. Samhain was probably a time to honor ancestors, prepare for winter, and celebrate the harvest. That sounds a lot like most holidays from October-January, and you’ll notice that most of our modern Halloween trappings are conspicuously absent. The Celts didn’t dress up, go trick or treating, or even engage in any pranks, in short, Samhain shares a date with Halloween and perhaps a “feeling” but nothing else.

So where do most of our modern Halloween customs come from? It’s a good question and a complicated one. The Modern Halloween celebration in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon, and represents a mix of cultures, capitalism, and accommodation. The Celts weren’t the only ancient pagans to celebrate a holiday near October 31, the Romans celebrated Pomona on November 1st, as both a holiday and a goddess. Pomona was the goddess of the orchard, perhaps beginning Halloween’s long association with the apple (thought the fact that it’s harvested in October is most certainly the bigger factor). Pomona was a time of feasting and merry-making, much like the Roman Saturnalia.

In the 9th Century Pope Gregory IV declared November 1st as All Saint’s Day (also called All Hallows or Hallowmas), a holiday dedicated to remembering all of the saints “known and unknown.” In 1006 November 2 was proclaimed All Soul’s Day, a day set aside for praying for all the souls lost in purgatory. Curiously, in Ireland, All Soul’s Day had been celebrated on May 1 prior to 1006, so the placement of All Saint’s and All Soul’s doesn’t entirely rest on the idea of propagating the Celtic Samhain from the pagans. I’m sure it played a small part, but it’s important to remember that the Catholic Church represented all of Europe, and the majority of Europe was not populated by Celts, and not every culture had a holiday on October 31st. (Most of Western Europe had also been Christianized centuries before the establishment of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.)

We tend to think that the “Holiday Season” (Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s Eve) as long today, but it was even longer in the Middle Ages. Hallowtide (Halloween through All Soul’s) was the beginning of the Holiday Season-a season for masques, balls, rebel rousing, and begging. In some respects, Halloween became a repository for orphaned holiday traditions. A lot of the traditions we associate with Halloween actually got their start in other holidays, including Christmas, and later the American version of Thanksgiving.

The tradition of trick or treating grew from a variety of sources. For several centuries All Hallow’s Eve was an evening spent begging. The less fortunate would ask the rich for money or food, a common practice before important Catholic holidays. The Christmas version of Wassaling (or Caroling) is an early version of “trick or treat,” though minus the trick. It was considered better form to sing or dance for a reward. During the Renaissance the “treat” became more defined, and many areas settled on the “Soul Cake” an oat and molasses cookie.

The term “trick or treat” wasn’t even in common usage until the 1940’s, and its first use in a national publication was only in 1939 in an article for American Home magazine. The trick or treating written about in 1939 bears little resemblance to the modern day version. In 1939 the magazine writer was encouraging her readers to leave the front door open on Halloween, and to invite children inside to have some treats in an attempt to prevent vandalism. Kids during the 1930’s were already asking for treats, but usually at local businesses instead of residences. It was only in the post World War Two years that trick or treating turned into a national phenomenon, and that was done to quell the violence that had grown up around the holiday.

While it seems weird to think of Halloween as violent (scary yes, violent no) it was scarily violent in the United States from the post World War One era right up until World War Two. The tradition of violence and mayhem on Halloween arose from many sources. One of those sources was the rowdy celebration of Guy Fawke’s Day (or Bonfire Night) where an effigy of the Catholic Fawkes was paraded through town (sometimes with an effigy of the Pope as well) and thrown on a bonfire. Revelers on Bonfire Night sometimes wore masks, hiding their identities as they engaged in the rowdy and destructive festival.

Halloween also became a time for drunkenness and role reversal. It became the one night of the year where it was “OK” for a child to get away with playing pranks on a parent or other adult. Eventually these pranks became more malicious, especially in the United States, where gangs of kids would wander major cities on Halloween causing nothing but trouble. Some of those kids were just soaping windows, but others were engaging in physical and petty vandalism, costing cities and home-owners thousands of dollars in property damage.

Halloween celebrations in the United States were probably inspired by the large numbers of immigrants coming from Ireland and Scotland. Halloween was popular in England, but had been mostly overshadowed by Bonfire Night. It was always seen as important in Scotland and (especially) Catholic Ireland, a country that wanted nothing to do with burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes. The earliest Halloween celebrations in the United States were cultural holidays, celebrating Scottish and Irish Culture. Early Halloween cards featured tartan and the words “Auld Lang Syne” in yet another example of how Holiday Traditions mixed and took awhile to settle into their now comfortable spots.

The word Halloween is of fairly recent vintage, first being used in the mid-1700’s. The holiday might have become known as something else entirely if not for the work of Scottish poet Robert Burns (who also wrote “Auld Lang Syne”) who composed the poem Halloween in 1785. Halloween is difficult to understand today (having been written in Burns’ native Scottish brogue) but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the cultural celebration of Halloween in Scotland. For Burns, Halloween is a celebration of the harvest and a night for divination.

Despite what people want to find in Burns’ Halloween the poem is more notable for the absence of the familiar. There is no trick or treating, no witches, ghouls, or ghosts, but there is a lot of divination. Wanting to know the future is a cultural universal, and divination is an art form found in every religion and in all sorts of local folk-customs. In the 18th Century Halloween was considered a good time of year to try and figure out who a young woman’s future husband would be. (It wasn’t the only time of year for this practice either, it was common at numerous other holidays, including Valentine’s Day most obviously, but also Candlemass and May Day.) Nuts were thrown into fires, and their roasting and cracking sounds were interpreted for signs of future nuptials. Apples and mirrors were also used in divination rites. “Bobbing for Apples” originally began as a fortune-telling exercise and later evolved into a party game. (Though less popular today, apples were also tied to strings and swung from ceilings.) Halloween was a popular time for ladies’ parlor games in 19th Century Britain and the United States, many even saw the holiday as a “Woman’s Holiday.”

The use of the apple in Hallowtide divination practices should not be a surprise. Apples were especially abundant in October. Most of the “natural elements” used to decorate around Halloween are simply what’s around during that time of year. Gourds, apples, fallen leaves, straw, all common things in an agricultural setting. Even scarecrows are just another reflection of the agricultural cycle that was. If there’s anything truly “pagan” about Halloween, it’s probably the harvest associations. (Which makes me laugh when Christians replace Halloween with “Harvest Celebrations,” because that’s the most pagan of all Halloween traditions.)

Burns did mention fairies, but he failed to mention ghosts and other ghouls. (Many early Halloween postcards actually contain leprechauns!) While Burns didn’t mention the scary as we think of it today (though fairies could be nasty business), it had always been a part of the holiday for many who celebrated Halloween. Despite the efforts to cast Dia de los Muertos (The Mexican Day of the Dead) as a pagan celebration, it has many precursors in Catholic Europe. All Soul’s Day was used to honor fallen ancestors, perhaps due to the earlier associations on Samhain (or the association with Samhain and the dead could be a reverse projection). As Halloween was gaining traction in the United States Spiritualism was at its peak. Spiritualists taught that the living could talk with the dead, and it’s been estimated that 20% of Americans were Spiritualists in the 19th Century. Ghosts weren’t rare visitors in homes back then, they were frequent, and would remain so up until the 1920’s. Halloween would have certainly been a great night for a seance!

As Halloween gained popularity in the early 20th Century, so did horror movies. Four of the biggest “stars” in the 1930’s were Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and the Wolf-Man. As costume parties became more common place, dressing up as a favorite Universal Monster was an easy decision. Monsters just naturally fit into late October as well. Dracula isn’t all that scary during the summer, but in the fall . . . when you can still be outside even though the sun sets at 5:00 . . . . monsters are a natural fit. Fairy tale witches have been associated with Halloween since the late 19th Century, probably due to their overwhelming popularity in fairy tales. Think back to the “bad guys” in most storybooks back then, Dracula hadn’t quite entered world consciousness. While Witches were common, it took The Wizard of Oz (1939) to standardize the look of the Halloween witch. Witches wore all sorts of colors pre-Wizard, but basically only black afterwards.

Surprisingly, one of the things not mentioned by Burns in his Halloween poem is the jack-o-lantern. While it’s been suggested that Jack-o-Lantern is genuinely old, there are no written references to it until 1663 when it’s referred to as “Jack with the Lantern.” Old Jack with the Lantern was one of many fairy tale stories featuring the trickster figure “Jack.” According to his Lantern tale, God wouldn’t accept Jack into heaven, and Satan wouldn’t accept him into hell, but Lucifer was nice enough to throw a burning ember of coal Jack’s way, which Jack then kept in a hollowed out turnip. Jack was then cursed to wander the world with his glowing turnip until Judgement Day.

There might be some historical precedent for the turnip-o-lantern. Many scholars think it was used in Catholic Ireland to represent souls stuck in purgatory on All Soul’s night. The turnip lantern could be used to honor those souls, or perhaps to guide them to a better place. When the Irish moved to North America they began replacing the hard to carve turnip with the easier to carve pumpkin and the modern Jack O Lantern was born. Instead of being an ancient symbol of pagandom, it’s a relatively modern twist on a Catholic custom.

(Many Americans have inserted Jack-o-lanterns into the historical record before they even existed. Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hallow” is a great example of this. The Headless Horseman didn’t throw a jack-o-lantern at poor Ichabod Crane, he only threw a pumpkin. Despite our modern day imaginings the story didn’t even take place on Halloween as The Dutch didn’t celebrate the holiday.)

One of the great thrills about Halloween is dressing up in costume, but this is (again) a rather modern development. There is some historical precedent for it; the Holiday Season was a time for masquerade balls, which of course involved masks. Guy Fawkes Day also featured masks, and holiday pranksters tended to hide their faces, either with cork or the occasional mask. Holidays through the Hallowmas to New Year’s Cycle also featured days when unconventional behavior was rewarded. Early versions of all those holidays featured “Lords of Misrule” and the occasional cross dressing. Social norms were thrown out the window on holidays, and Lords sometimes played peasants, and men sometimes played women.

Halloween wasn’t the only holiday to feature dress up either. For about fifty years the City of New York featured all kinds of costumed kids and adults on Thanksgiving (From about 1870-1932). People would dress up on Thanksgiving and then dance for handouts while in costume. Eventually (and partially because of the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”) the tradition was moved to Halloween. Costumed Halloween parties had been gaining in traction since the early 1900’s, so the move was a natural one.

The tradition of dressing up as something sinister was a German one and can be traced to a version of the Walpurgis Night Celebration. Walpurgis is a holiday a lot like Halloween, full of tricks and pranks. The song Night on Bald Mountain is an interpretation of Walpurgis, a night when it was said that witches celebrated the coming of Spring, often with Satan. The German Walpurgis festival of Faschnacht featured people dressed up as witches and ghosts, this was absorbed into Halloween.

By the early 1950’s businesses began to see an opportunity to make big money with Halloween, and began to gather up the separate strands that made up the holiday and turn them into a whole. Parties were promoted for adults, and the practice of trick or treating was turned into a national custom. Due to the powers of TV, radio, and print, it began to feel like Halloween had always been a part of our lives. Add the human capacity for wanting to be scared, and everything fell neatly into place.

Halloween is a pagan holiday, and a Catholic one, but mostly it’s a secular one. It represents our desire to celebrate the harvest at a seasonally appropriate time. It plays to the joys of being young and pretending to be something we are not by dressing up. Halloween fits nicely into our consumer culture, and allows us to play with that part of our psyche that likes to experience fear. Halloween is a blending of folk traditions and capitalism. Halloween doesn’t endorse a particular religious view, it speaks to what’s best about us as people; it allows us to build something new while paying respect to our past.

As a Pagan I’ve always looked at “Halloween” and “Samhain” as completely separate holidays. I spend time with my gods and my ancestors on Samhain, and on Halloween I dress up in costume, throw parties, and pass out candy. One of them is a secular holiday, and the other is a time for spiritual growth.


Death Takes a Holiday by David J. Skal Bloomsbury Publishing; 2002.

Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers Oxford University Press; 2002.

The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton Oxford University Press; 2001

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