The History of Halloween
Known variously as Samhain, Summer’s End, All Hallow’s Eve, Witches Night, Lamswool, and Snap-Apple night, Halloween is among the world’s oldest holidays. Rooted in ancient pagan and Christian festivals that celebrated the inextricable link between seasonal and life cycles, Halloween has transcended its cultural roots and is currently celebrated in various forms all over the modern world. Halloween as it exists today is an exciting array of dichotomies as it delights both children and adults, prompts private religious observance as well as public exhibitionism, and blends personal imagination with mass marketing. A day full of magic and mystery, Halloween has not only survived, but it has thrived during epic cultural, religious, economic, and industrial changes throughout its long history.
Roots in Ancient Celtic Festivals
The essential elements of Halloween, such as costuming, trick-or-treating, lighting bonfires, telling ghost stories, and attending community parties can be traced back 2000 years ago to the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (SOW-in or SOW-an), which means “summer’s end.” As the second major seasonal festival of the year (the first was called Beltain, celebrated around May 1st), Samhain marked the death of summer and the beginning of the Celtic New Year (Rogers 2002). As a moment of change, Samhain was viewed as a night of magic and power. In a time where there was little distinction between the diminishing sun and the possible extinction of life, Samhain was an intensely sacred festival that marked the boundaries between summer and winter and life and death (Skal 2002).
The Celts (which included people from northern France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany) believed that on October 31st the Lord of Death, Saman, would call together all the souls that had died the previous year to travel to afterlife during the Vigil of Samhain. Ancestral ghosts and demons emerged from sidh (ancient mounds or barrows of the countryside) and were free to roam the earth, harm crops, and cause trouble (Bannatyne 1990). The living would often disguise themselves in ghoulish costumes so the spirits of the dead would think they were one of their own and pass by without incident. The masked villagers would also form parades to lead the spirits out to the town limits. In addition to masks and costumes and, arguably, as a precursor to modern-day trick-or-treating, the Celts would also offer food to Saman to persuade him to more be temperate as he judged their ancestors. Additionally, the Celts would lay out food for their weary ancestors traveling to the other world or to appease spirits who were looking for trouble (Rogers 2002).
Because these roaming spirits were thought to hold the secrets of the afterlife and the future, Celtic priests, or Druids, thought that divinations could be read with more clarity on this particular day. The priests would light large fires to both strengthen the Sun god and to make divinations by throwing a horse or cat (sometimes in a wicker cage) into the fire and watch the burning entrails. At midnight, they would begin to worship Saman, who would be the ruler of the earth for the next six months (Thompson 2003). Because the Celts were an oral culture, some speculation remains whether the Druids actually practiced human sacrifice and the Roman accounts (like Julius Caesar’s reports) are accurate or just instances of Roman propaganda (Skal 2002).
Roman Festival of Pomona
All Saints and All Souls Days
After Constantine officially declared Christianity legal in the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. Realizing they would have more success in converting others by assimilating existing powerful pagan rites and symbols into Christian rituals rather than obliterating them altogether, shrewd Church leaders gradually appropriated Samhain and Panoma celebrations into the Catholic rituals of All Saints and All Souls Days. In fact, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day (or All Hallow’s Day, in England) from May 1st to November 1st to coincide with the pagan festivals. The eve of All Saints Day, October 31st, became All Hallow Even, then Hallowe’en, and then Halloween. In addition, a French monastic order called the Cluniacs created All Soul’s Day to commemorate all departed Christian souls (not just the saints') on November 2nd (Rogers 2002). Taken together, the three days were called Hallowmas, (“hallow” meaning “sanctified” or “holy”) (Thompson 2003).
In many respects, these Christian rituals remained the same as their pagan counterparts with a few important derivations. For example, like the ancient pagans, the Church encouraged their congregation to remember the dead--but with prayers instead of sacrifice. In addition, instead of appeasing spirits through food and wine, members of the congregation would go house to house carrying a hollowed out turnip lantern whose candle symbolized a soul trapped in purgatory and offering prayers for the dead in exchange for “Soul Cakes.” Poor churches could not afford genuine relics of the saints and instead held processions where parishioners dressed as saints, angels, and devils, resembling the pagan custom of parading ghosts to the town limits (Bannatyne 1990). Bonfires were also lit, not in homage to the sun, but to keep the mortal enemy of the new religion away: Satan, a concept arguably incompatible with the polytheism of the ancient Celts. The Druids were seen as witches (wiccas or “wise ones”), and a fourteenth-century text called Malleus Maleficarium (The Witches Hammer) created a link between witchcraft and the devil that produced a mythology so powerful it lasts even today (Rogers 2002). By the end of the Middle Ages, Hallowmas was among the most important liturgical movements in the Christian year.
The Reformation and Halloween
It was on Halloween in 1517 when Martin Luther began a reformation that would radically limit celebrations of Halloween in Europe. As subsequent Protestant sects began forming throughout Western Europe, many Catholic rituals--including Hallowmas--were banned (Skal 2002). Yet, just as the Celtic Samhain was assimilated with the Roman festival of Ponoma and merged again with Catholic custom, the English Protestants appropriated several elements of Halloween in an autumn festival known as Guy Fawkes Day. This day celebrated the Protestant triumph of a Catholic plot led by Guy Fawkes to blow up the Protestant-sympathetic House of Lords when Parliament met on Nov 5, 1605 (Rogers 2002). Guy Fawkes was publically hanged and then drawn and quartered for his role in the plot, and it became popular to re-enact his punishment through the festive parading of a scarecrow figure through the streets (Rogers 2002). The eve of Guy Fawkes Day became “mischief night” and, instead of begging for “soul cakes” in commemoration of All Saints Day, boys dressed up in costumes to beg for coal to burn their effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope, or other unpopular political figures. But in countries that maintained a strong Catholic tradition, such as Ireland and Scotland, Halloween rituals flourished largely untouched by the Protestant Reformation (Skal 2002).
Halloween in the New World
The American Revolution created a society more tolerant of religious diversity and, consequently, Halloween celebrations became increasingly secular and centered in the community rather than churches (Bannatyne 1990). While Halloween maintained its association with the harvest and changing seasons, it was also becoming more gendered. For example, while young males were creating mischief such as blocking chimneys, ruining cabbage patches, unhinging gates, and unstable-ing horses, young women typically stayed close to home on “San-Apple Night” to divine a future mate by bobbing for apples or divining from apple peels (Thompson 2003). Still, both genders enjoyed telling ghost stories, which likely derived from both the Druid belief that the ancestral dead arise on this night and the Christian directive to honor the souls of the departed at Hallowmas (Rogers 2002).
Immigration in the Early Nineteenth Century
Victorian Era Romanticization
The emergence of both the Victorian periodical and postcard at the end of the nineteenth century helped create homogeneity among the disparate ethnic Halloween traditions--at least among the educated middle and upper classes. However, while Victorian periodicals created a synthesis of sorts, they also tended to romanticize Halloween as a genteel holiday and as a night of romantic divinations and parlor games (Rogers 2002). In addition, Victorian ghost stories became less concerned with actual ghosts and more concerned with romance and passion. As Victorians attempted to throw better parties than their neighbors, they added pomp to their celebrations that had little to do with Halloween (Bannatyne 1990). Ancient Halloween rites were all but lost as the focus became more and more the province of children, matchmaking, and kissing games.
Halloween in the Twentieth Century
As mass-marketed periodicals (such as The Ladies’ Home Journal) and other various mass media continued to advertise the “perfect Halloween party,” Halloween became a bona fide North American holiday in the 1920s that was an economic boon for businesses and candy manufacturers alike. As commercialization continued in the early twentieth century, civic groups such as high schools and rotary clubs began taking over some of the domestic rituals of Halloween and promoted it as an event for everyone. As cases of mischief increased, particularly during the Depression, more Halloween tricksters were being “bought off” with candy. For example, packaging for Ze Jumbo Jelly Beans contained the message: “Stop Halloween Pranksters.” In 1939, the magazine American Homes was the first mass-marketed periodical in the U.S. to use the term “trick or treat” as a distinct property-protection strategy (Skal 2002).
During WWII, some Halloween celebrations were canceled due to sugar rationing, but soon trick-or-treating would reach its commercial heyday. Like the consumer post-war economy, Halloween in the 1950s grew by leaps and bounds. Candy companies, with plenty of sugar available again, launched national advertising campaigns directly at Halloween, and soon trick-or-treating became a national practice (Skal 2002). Americans continued to add a distinctly commercial slant to Halloween with Hollywood scary movies, greeting cards, and decorations. During the 1960s, however, rumors of tainted treats and razor blades in candy, as well as a cyanide-laced Tylenol scare in 1982, frightened both parents and children. Though actual tampering of Halloween candy has been extremely rare, fear still lingers today (Rogers 2002). Yet, Halloween, as it tends to do, recovered, and today is the second largest national holiday behind Christmas.
Halloween is no stranger to controversy even in the twenty-first century, but the energy of Halloween has always been targeted by those who wish to control it, from the early Catholic church to the various political and religious groups of today. Yet, Halloween has managed to achieve national status without federal sanction (such as July 4th and Christmas) because it’s a celebration of the potential of what humans want to be--and, if only for one night, what they would not otherwise be (Rogers 2002). Historically Halloween endures because it allows its participants to both embrace and defuse their fears (Thompson 2003). From the ancient Celts who worshipped the Lord of the Dead to help them visualize the afterlife to the little vampires and fairies trick-or-treating at your door, Halloween’s adaptability is the reason it remains—after nearly 2000 years—the most bewitching night of the year.
-- Posted September 1, 2008
Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. 1990. Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc.
Rogers, Nicholas. 2002. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Skal, David J. 2002. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. New York, New York: Bloomsbury.Thompson, Sue Ellen. 2003. Holiday Symbols and Customs. 3rd Ed. Detroit, Michigan: Omnigraphics, Inc.