How America Helped Invent the Modern Halloween

How America Helped Invent the Modern Halloween October 20, 2016

We’ve been led to believe over the last 100 years that our holidays are timeless, and that they’ve been celebrated in a similar way for centuries. It’s a beautiful idea, but it’s not true. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween in the United States have only really emerged over the last two hundred years, and perhaps Halloween even more so than the other two.

It’s true that there was an Irish-Celtic celebration called Samhain that existed in pagan antiquity, but we know almost nothing about it. That celebration had no vampires, no costumes, no pumpkins, not even anything having to do with the dead. People gathered together, they probably ate a lot of food, and most likely they were collectively scared of evil fairies. It was nothing like today’s Samhain or even yesterday’s Halloween.

"Snap-Apple Night" by Daniel Maclise.  From WikiMedia.
“Snap-Apple Night” by Daniel Maclise. From WikiMedia.

Halloween has existed as a holiday for several hundred years now. There’s not quite a straight line between Samhain and All Saint’s Day, but by the time All Hallow’s Eve became Halloween the two celebrations had become extremely different. By the middle of the Seventeenth Century (about when the term Halloween came into existence) the night of October 31 had evolved into a divination day. Games to get a glimpse of the future were so prevalent that Nutcrack Night was once used an alternative name for the holiday. (People would place whole nuts near their fireplaces to see how they eventually burned, if they “popped” it meant love was fleeting.)

More Samhain/Halloween at Raise the Horns:

A Real History of Samhain
The Origins of Halloween Things (Jack-O-Lanterns, Trick or Treat, Costumes, Bobbing for Apples
Four Halloween & Samhain Myths (Day of the Dead, Black Cats, Poisoned Candy, Halloween as a pagan holiday)
A Halloween History (the Real History of Halloween)

In many parts of England Halloween was almost completely replaced by Guy Fawkes Night (November 5), and Fawkes was also popular in many parts of North America. The two holidays share a lot of similarities beyond their place on the calendar. Both have been an excuse for violence and vandalism (“pranks”) over the centuries, and we tend to associate masks and parties with both as well. It’s not all that difficult to imagine an America with Guy Fawkes emerging supreme over Halloween (especially as anti-Catholic as the United States has been through much of its history), but we were likely spared such a fate due to the sheer number of Catholic immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

The most important groups when it came to establishing Halloween as an American holiday were Irish and Scottish immigrants. In one of its earliest American forms, Halloween served as a day of Scottish (and often Irish) pride. Much like today’s St. Patrick’s celebrations are all about being Irish (and drunk), early Halloween was about being Scottish. Guy Fawkes never succeeded in replacing Halloween as it had nearly done in England, so it served as an important cultural marker between the two nations.

"Festivities in Windsor Castle" by Paul Sandby.   From WikiMedia.
“Festivities in Windsor Castle” by Paul Sandby. From WikiMedia.

While many people used to wish each other a happy “Auld Lang Syne” on Halloween, eventually the more supernatural and fanciful aspects began to reassert themselves. In order to cut down on some of the violence associated with the holiday people began throwing costume parties to celebrate the day. Many of these parties were focused on children, and the day began to become more and more a children’s holiday. Traditional forms of divination (such as bobbing for apples) were turned into parlor games.

The rise of Halloween (and other Autumn holidays) coincided with the growth of the American middle class, and as people had more money, businesses looked for ways to acquire that money. Holidays became a good way of doing so, and those with a real financial interest in growing holidays like Halloween began to promote it. I know a lot of people who complain about Halloween being too commercial, but it likely wouldn’t exist without that promotion.

Did Halloween first emerge in the British Isles? Of course, but many of its most hallowed traditions emerged in North America, and it’s current world-wide popularity can very much be attributed to how popular the holiday has become in the United States. It’s not an American holiday in the traditional sense (we don’t even recognize it as a holiday technically), but it’s one we helped to shape and popularize.

"The Headless Horseman" by John Quidor.  From WikiMedia.
“The Headless Horseman” by John Quidor. From WikiMedia.

Halloween is a mixture of many things-Irish-Celtic Samhain, Walpurgis Night, All Saint’s Day, Guy Fawkes Night-but in its current form it’s a very American holiday, and nearly all the things we associate with Halloween today are generally American ones.

This Halloween night I’ll be lighting the Jack-O-Lantern on my porch, passing out candy, and projecting LED Witches on the front of my house. All of those traditions grew up here in America, making Halloween a holiday that transcends borders.

Jack’O’Lantern: Pumpkins are an American vegetable. Native Americans have been cultivating them for at least 8000 years, and they were a staple crop of the first European settlers in North America. But it was Irish-Americans who would turn the pumpkin into the Jack’O’Lantern we all recognize today. There’s a lot of debate over whether or not the Irish carved turnips and other vegetables and turned them into lanterns, but it seems likely. But none of those vegetables were pumpkins, because they didn’t exist in Europe until they were imported later.

Pumpkins are the fall vegetable par excellence, and are the right size for being particularly creepy looking when hollowed out and turned into a face. The Jack-O-Lantern is the most ubiquitous symbol of Halloween in the world today, and it’s origins lie in the Americas (with an assist from Ireland).

This porch in  New Orleans is much better decorated than mine.
This porch in New Orleans is much better decorated than mine.

Trick or Treating: People have been begging and asking for treats on religious holidays for over a thousand years now, but it’s America that made the tradition a true Halloween staple. Customs similar to trick or treating were once practiced on Christmas, New Year’s, and even Thanksgiving, but beginning in the 1930’s, and escalating quickly after World War II, the custom was increasingly limited to just Halloween.

The term “trick or treat” Is an American one as well. It first shows up in print in 1939, but is likely at least a few years older. There’s no record of any other country using the phrase before it became popular in America.

A Season With the Witch: The Magic & Mayhem of Halloween in Salem Massachusetts by J.W. Ocker (A Mini-Book Review)

America’s biggest Halloween party every year might be the month long celebration that goes on every year in Salem Massachusetts. Over the course of October hundreds of thousands of people descent upon “Witch City USA” to drink, party, and celebrate the season. Salem’s tourism industry is largely built around Witches and Halloween, and A Season With the Witch gets inside what makes that Halloween motor run.

Real Witches, and their shops, play a part in Ocker’s book, but his portrayal of them is largely sympathetic. He’s not a believer, but he’s not looking to ridicule anyone either. They come across as a mostly sympathetic thread in the tapestry of Salem.

The real highlight of Ocker’s book is just how inviting he makes Salem feel. Yeah, some of the tourist traps are showing their age, and might not be worth the prize of admission, but he writes about them as palaces of American kitsch and ingenuity. Ocker’s Salem in the Autumn is like a Disneyland for tourists curious about the word Witch.

It also serves as a short history of how Salem became Witch City USA, and just what the city has to offer beyond the witch-economy. Ocker’s Salem is a city rich in history, and by the time I was done with his book I was ready to visit. He also explores the tensions between those who are embarrassed by Salem’s Halloween extravaganza and those who revel in it, the conflict makes for fascinating reading.

If you’ve ever been curious about Salem, or just delight in Americana this is a book worth picking up.

Monsters & Witches: The rise of Halloween paralleled the heyday of the Universal Studios Movie Monsters. Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf-Man were the superheroes of their day and were perfect for Halloween dress up. Such costumes helped to keep the creepy on October 31 and inspired all of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that would come later.

After the Jack-O-Lantern the broom riding, black wearing Witch is probably the most well known Halloween icon, but she’s of rather recent vintage. Before the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939), Witches wore all sorts of different colors, rarely had green skin, and sometimes were even portrayed as attractive. (The “Sexy Witch” phenomenon is not necessarily a recent one.) After Dorothy’s trip to Oz most Halloween Witches began to look like the Wicked Witch of the West, a trend that has mostly continued in Halloween iconography.

A lot of our later Halloween icons all have an American origin point too. Jack Skellington (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Michael Myers (Halloween), and Freddy Krueger are all American spectral figures.

"Halloween" by Howard Chandler Christy.  From WikiMedia.
“Halloween” by Howard Chandler Christy. From WikiMedia.

Halloween Parties: October 31 has always been a time for large gatherings. The Irish-Celts used to do it, but as Halloween morphed into a holiday for children in the early 20th Century the party aspect of the day began to fade. But in recent years Halloween has once again become a very adult time of year. Both Generation X’ers and Baby Boomers have proven reluctant to give up many of their childhood traditions, and this has included Halloween.

In addition to Salem Massachusetts, every other city associated with party culture has become a Halloween beacon. Halloween in New Orleans is apparently crazy, and the holiday is a big deal in Las Vegas now too. Sadly the once 250,000 people Halloween celebration in San Francisco’s Castro District is a thing in the past, but just that it existed speaks to the power of Halloween.

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