Halloween: A Brief History

There is a debate between secular scholars and religious scholars regarding the origins of Halloween. The first recorded date for the use of the term Halloween was 1745. Secular scholars believed that Halloween sprung forth from the Celtic harvest festival, Samhain (S-ow-in). Religious scholars said that it came from a purely Christian origin. Today’s Halloween customs are thought to have been influenced by folk customs and beliefs from the Celtic-speaking countries, some of which are believed to have pagan roots.

Jack Santino, a folklorist, writes that “there was throughout Ireland an uneasy truce existing between customs and beliefs associated with Christianity and those associated with religions that were Irish before Christianity arrived”. Historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while “some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia (Wikipedia).

A 'coven of witches' line up for a Halloween portrait dressed in festive witch's hats and improvised costumes, ca.1910, United States. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
A ‘coven of witches’ line up for a Halloween portrait dressed in festive witch’s hats and improvised costumes, ca.1910, United States. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

Trick or Treat: Origins

Trick or Treat has roots in the 16th Century custom (in Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man and Wales) of mumming and guising. This involved people going house-to-house in costume or a disguise, usually performing for food. It may have come from the custom of souling, or it may have been a way of imitating, and disguising themselves from spirits.

“It is suggested that the mummers and guisers “personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune“. In parts of southern Ireland, the guisers included a hobby horse. A man dressed as a Láir Bhán (white mare) led youths house-to-house reciting verses—some of which had pagan overtones—in exchange for food. If the household donated food it could expect good fortune from the ‘Muck Olla’; not doing so would bring misfortune (Wikipedia).”

Christian Appropriation & Modern Halloween

In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the pagan traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween turned into a secular, community-based activity characterized by child-friendly activities such as trick-or-treating and adult activities like Halloween Balls, etc. In a number of countries around the world, people continue to usher in the winter season with gatherings, costumes and sweet treats.


How did Modern Halloween come to be in America?

The celebration of Halloween in America was not a common activity due rigid Protestant belief systems. While colonial England was tougher on these kind of activities (i.e. Remember the Salem Witch Trials?), it was something that was celebrated in Maryland and southern colonies.Things really started to change over the years as colonists mingled with indian tribes and especially when immigrants began to flood the shores of the United States. These immigrants brought new ideas, new beliefs, and different practices. In particular, Ireland’s potato famine of 1846 caused a flurry of Irish immigrants fled to the States. They brought their traditions and so traditions began to infuse themselves with existing ones. Around this time, Americans began to disguise themselves and go from house to house asking for food or money, a practice that spawned today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. “Young women believed that on Halloween they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors (History.com).”

Over time, the celebration of Halloween became less about ghosts, witches, and demons and more about community and neighborly get-togethers. Trick or treating was less common. Halloween’s reputation began to be tarnished by vandalism around the 1920s and 1930s.

By the 1950s, due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties rush to have babies and more babies, parties were centered around the classroom or home. Halloween became a celebration of youth and what kid didn’t like to get candy. Trick or treat was revived and vandalism was successfully curtailed by community leaders. According to History.com, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday.861683a7759cd275a5b162456e6a1f5d3736287f

How has Halloween changed over the years?

I am an adult now and so Halloween is a different experience. However, I have watched less trick or treating happening in neighborhoods and more in “safe zones” or well-to-do neighborhoods. The American Mall became the place to take children to safely receive candy. Some churches (some are less fussy about Halloween) became a safe haven for children to enjoy picking out pumpkins and receiving candy. When I grew up there was lots more Halloween marketing directed at kids from toys to candy to food. Halloween episodes still happen on various TV shows, but it has diminished over the years. Maybe I feel less of a Halloween Spirit as an adult because I see it differently but I am truly a big kid and not just a big kid but a big Monster kid. This generation of kids doesn’t even have Saturday Morning Cartoons anymore.

Everything goes through changes and Halloween will hopefully be even more popular again as time progresses. However, today, it is definitely overshadowed by Generation Outrage and other societal issues.



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