The Original Halloween

Halloween History Week with your Friendly Neighborhood History Geek!

Tuesday’s entry:
The Original Halloween

The very first Halloween was a ritual celebrated by the Celts for their Samhain (Sow-in) festival. The start of the Celtic New Year was November 1st, as it was the day that marked the official end of summer and harvest, and winter was the first full season; there was none of this ending the year in the middle of winter nonsense, only to end the year with winter and start the year with winter! The cold, dark months that followed the bright warm and cheery atmosphere that was summer were often associated with death. Many, if not most of the deaths that happened in one year occurred during these months where people were out in the cold (think what our grandparents and great-grandparents used to say to us: “You’ll catch your death out there if you go out without a coat!”) and then would come indoors where they stayed huddled together and would pass around diseases from one person to the next; it wasn’t actually the cold that killed people as it was believed back then.
Anyway, the Celts believed that the veil between life and death was at it’s thinnest at the start of the new year, which was October 31st/November 1st. On October 31st, they celebrated Samhain, which was when the dead would come back to earth to visit the living and would be able to do so because of the blurred line that separated the living earth from the world of the dead, and the dead would come and inform priests (the Celtic priests were known as Druids) about what things would come in the new year.

During this festival, bonfires would be built by the druids, and these bonfires were where they would burn animal sacrifices to the Celtic gods. During these celebrations, everyone would dress up, usually as animals, to confuse any evil spirits and demons that they believed could also come through the thin veil between living and dead.

When the Romans conquered the Celts in 43 A.D., they had a similar holiday that celebrated their dead, called Feralia, and during this celebration, they would also worship the Roman goddess Pomona, who was the goddess of the harvest. These Roman holidays were then combined with the Celtic Samhain celebration when the Romans conquered the Celts, and this combined holiday was actually what introduced more traditions we normally see on Halloween, such as bobbing for apples, which is what the Romans did to celebrate Pomona, whose symbol was the apple.

In 609 A.D. Pope Boniface IV used November 1st to honor Christian martyrs and established All Martyrs Day, which was celebrated in the Catholic church. Later, between 731-741 A.D. Pope Gregory III decided to include Christian saints as well as martyrs, and the day after Halloween, November 1st, became known as All Saints Day, or All Hallow’s (From the middle-English word Alhollowmese which meant ‘Saint’). November 2nd was designated to serve as an All Soul’s Day as a day to commemorate the dead. October 31st, the day of the Samhain festival, became All Hallow’s Eve, and eventually, due to language translations, it became ‘Halloween’ and it still included many of the original Samhain celebrations.

Some of the superstitions Halloween brought was the fear of the black cat (it was believed witches would disguise themselves by turning into black cats), broken mirrors would give seven years of bad luck (usually because people associated the bad luck with the injuries sustained from breaking a mirror) and even finding a soul mate was a Halloween superstition: young unmarried women longing for a husband would do things like throw apple peels over their shoulder, eat nutmeg before bed, and sit in a dark room on Halloween night looking in the mirror until she saw the face of her future husband over her shoulder.

Halloween as we know it was not celebrated in much of the New World of America in the earliest years due to strict Protestant rules, but as the Southern areas became more and more populated, the traditions of the European version of Halloween were celebrated and even combined with the traditions of American Indians. This “American” version of Halloween was, out of all the earliest versions of Halloween, the most similar to what we know today, minus some things that were added later. The later half of the nineteenth century saw an immigration boom, and of these immigrants, the Irish, who fled the potato famine of the 1840s, popularized Halloween and brought even more traditions that the early American Halloween did not yet know, such as the tradition of dressing up in costumes and the carving of Jack o’Lanterns.

The early Victorian era saw costumes being used as disguises for people, especially children, to go house to house asking for food and money, which was an English tradition of the English version of All Soul’s Day, when the poor would go to rich houses to beg for food and would be given “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the dead relatives of the person who gave them the soul cake. Before it was called ‘trick-or-treating,’ it was called ‘Going a-souling.’ The practice was originally encouraged by the church of England to discourage people from the superstitious act of leaving wine and food out for roaming spirits.

In the later half of the Victorian era, there was a push to make Halloween more of a holiday for children and make it more of a community celebration. Because of this push, a lot of the grotesque stories, animal sacrifices, and superstition was taken out of Halloween.

The late 1890s and early 1900s had Halloween mostly being celebrated by children who would dress up in disguises to play pranks on their neighbors and wreak havoc in the neighborhood. Often, the kids took it too far and completely vandalized their neighbor’s houses or town buildings. They’d do things like throw paint or eggs at houses, leave animal dung or rotten fruit, vegetables, and eggs hidden on porches, or even go as far as stealing outdoor furniture to burn up in bonfires they would set. Sometimes they’d stuff old clothes to look like bodies and hang them from trees or leave them on the sides of the road. The term ‘Trick or Treat’ came from this time, when these little pranksters dressed in costume would come up to a doorstep and ask for candy or else a trick would be played on the person who failed to give them candy. The most common costume children dressed in was a ghost or ghoul. Sometimes they would even make up stories about how the poor soul they were dressed as met an unfortunate end in life. They’d use old clothes, sheets, pillowcases, or potato sacks to make up their costume and they would decorate the costume with fake blood (usually made with tomato juice or red paint).

The 1920s and 1930s was when Halloween became an actual celebration with parades, festivals, and fun contests to entertain people. During the 1940s and 1950s, town leaders made great efforts to limit vandalism that was popular on Halloween. The 1950s baby boom made Halloween a prominently child-centered holiday, and Halloween parties became more child-friendly, decorations became more child-friendly, and a kinder, friendlier version of the Trick-or-Treat was established. Adults now gave candy because they wanted to, not because they were afraid of getting vandalized if they didn’t.

Today, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in America and Americans, collectively, spend over five billion dollars on Halloween per year, between decorations, costumes, and candy.


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