History of Halloween: What’s the Backstory?
HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN
I did an hour-long interview on this topic on this podcast
Halloween (Allhallows Eve’n) is the evening of October 31. This occasion is known as the vigil of Hallowmas in its strictly religious aspect. There are several names used during this time of year. To eliminate confusion, Allhallowstide includes these three holidays:
- October 31: All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween)
- November 1: All Hallows’ Day (All Saints’ Day, Feast of All Hallows, Hallowmas)
- November 2: All Soul’s Day
These are observed by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches and, to varying degrees, some other Protestant churches. Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate it the first Sunday after Pentecost.
Church History of Halloween
All Saints’ Day goes back to the 4th century in the church. What was called “The Great Persecution” was the last Empire-wide persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian, which ran from 303 – 312 A.D. Consequently, many Christians were martyred and All Saints’ Day recognized and honored them in a variety of places and days — usually around the days of Pentecost and Easter. We know from Ephraem Syrus, who died in 373 A.D., that a feast for all martyrs was kept on May 13 in the Eastern church.
Pope Boniface IV set the feast on that day when he dedicated the Pantheon of Rome as a church to St. Mary and all the martyrs in 609 A.D. The Pantheon still bears the name Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres.
In the early 700s, Pope Gregory III moved this holiday to the present date to celebrate the feast, at least in Rome, when he consecrated a chapel in the original St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to all the saints. But it took years to spread across various parts of Europe.
Later, Pope Gregory IV extended the November 1 feast to the entire church in 835 A.D. from the previous day, May 13, via a decree by the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious. In Latin countries in Europe, the evening of October 31 is observed mainly as a religious occasion, but in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, ancient Halloween folk customs persist alongside the religious observance. By the 12th century, the three days of Allhallowtide became holy days of obligation across Europe, associated with the ringing of bells and criers dressed in black who paraded the streets, calling on good Christians to remember the poor souls of those in purgatory.
Ancient Roman Holiday
Students of folklore believe that Halloween’s popular customs show traces of Pomona’s Roman harvest festival and Celtic Druidism. These influences are inferred from the use of nuts and apples as traditional Halloween foods and the figures of witches, black cats, and skeletons commonly associated with the occasion.
In Rome, Pomona was a goddess of flourishing fruit trees, gardens, and orchards (Latin word pomum, “fruit,” specifically orchard fruit) but was not part of the major pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses (and is not mentioned at all in the Greek pantheon.) Ovid, in his Metamorphosis, tells how she scorned the woodland god Silvanus and instead married Vertumnus; they shared a festival held on August 13.
Pre-Christian Europe and Halloween
In pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic year ended on October 31, the eve of Samhain, and was celebrated with both religious and harvest rites. For the Druids, Samhain (pronounced: SOWin) was both the “end of summer” and a festival of the dead. It was the border between the light half and the dark half of the year.
The spirits of the departed were believed to visit their relatives in search of warmth and good cheer as winter approached. It was also believed to be an occasion when fairies, witches, and goblins terrified the populace. The agents of the supernatural were alleged to steal infants, destroy crops, and kill farm animals. Bonfires were lighted on hilltops on the eve of Samhain. The fires may have been lighted in the belief of guiding the spirits of the dead to the homes of their relatives or to ward off witches.
In some regions of Scotland, Halloween was known as Nutcrack Night. Apples, suggesting immortality, were featured in divination customs. One peeled an apple in one long strip; then the peel was tossed over the shoulder. Its shape was said to form the first letter of the future spouse’s name.
Jack-o-Lanterns were popularized in Ireland. The apocryphal story goes that “Stingy Jack” allegedly tried to trick the devil. Upon his death, he was permitted into neither Heaven nor Hell. He was cursed to wander the earth with a burning coal lighting a hollowed turnip. He was called Jack of the Lantern or Jack O’Lantern.
- In the City Center of modern-day Dublin, signs advertise “Samhain Halloween” parties. Samhain is also the name for November in the modern Scots and Irish Gaelic languages.
Medieval Europe and Halloween
During the Middle Ages, when the common folk believed that witchcraft was devoted to worshipping Satan, this practice included periodic meetings known as Witches’ Sabbaths, which were allegedly given over to feasting and revelry. One of the most important Sabbaths was held on Halloween. Witches were alleged to fly to these meetings on broomsticks, accompanied by black cats who were their constant companions. Stories of these Sabbaths are the source of much folklore about Halloween. Images of witches and black cats became associated with Halloween.
British Isles Halloween Customs
Throughout areas of Ireland, Scotland, and England, several practices contributed to our modern Halloween practices.
“Souling” is the custom of baking “soul cakes” to distribute to children and the poor who would go from door-to-door offering to pray for the souls of their departed loved ones in exchange for the cakes. Most historians and folklorists believe this practice was the beginning of “Trick or Treat.” There was a flipside as well. A “trick” implied a threat to perform some kind of mischief on the homeowner or their property if no “treat” was provided.
Colonial America Halloween and Halloween
In 17th-century Puritan New England, the celebration of Halloween was banned, along with any special celebration of Christmas and Easter, though Catholic Maryland and Anglican Virginia retained some Halloween customs. During 19th-century Victorian times, Halloween was generally tame and devoid of occult overtones. Instead of pulling pranks or haunting neighborhoods, young people chatted and flirted in festooned parlors.
19th Century Halloween
In the mid-19th century in Ireland and Scotland, young people, in imitation of malevolent spirits, would play pranks on neighbors at this time of year. Samhain became nicknamed “Mischief Night.” When immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1840s, primarily due to the Potato Famine, they brought this harmless mischief with them.
Around the turn of the century, pranks would range from innocent, especially in rural areas, to more extensive ones. “Gate Night” featured gates being opened or taken off their hinges. This might allow livestock to escape, with gates hanging on trees.
However, during the Depression in 1930s America, these pranks turned into vandalism, most notably during “Black Halloween” in 1933. To combat this trend, storekeepers and neighborhoods used candy as a substitute distraction so that the pranksters would go door-to-door collecting treats.
“Mischief Night” was often celebrated on October 30, the night before Halloween. Dating was first mentioned in 1790 when in some parts of rural England, parties, jokes, pranks, and acts of vandalism were done on this night. It has been called many things, depending on location.
- Liverpool: Mizzy Night
- Yorkshire: Mischievous Night, Chievous Night, Miggy Night, Trick Night. Sometimes celebrated on November 4, the night before Bonfire Night.
- Wales: Noson Ddrygioni
- Canada: Gate Night (where gates are stolen and hung elsewhere)
- Ontario, Canada/Queens, New York: Cabbage Night (throwing rotten fruit, eggs, burning garbage)
- Great Lakes: Devil’s Night (where citizens patrol against arson and vandalism on Angels’ Night)
- North New Jersey/New York: Goosey Night
- Baltimore, Maryland: Moving Night (stealing porch furniture)
Cities would sponsor alternatives: curfews, “haunted” houses, corn mazes, and community parlor parties.
Trick or Treat from the British Isles
The contemporary “trick or treat” custom resembles an ancient Irish practice associated with Allhallows Eve. Groups of peasants went from house to house demanding food and other gifts in preparation for the evening’s festivities. Prosperity was assured for liberal donors, and threats were made against stingy ones.
These contributions were often demanded in the name of Muck Olla, an early Druid deity, or of St. Columb Cille, “dove of the Church” (also known as St. Colomba), who was an Irish missionary to Scotland during the 6th century.
- In England, some of the folk attributes of Halloween were assimilated by Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated on November 5. Consequently, Halloween lost some of its importance there. Many children are now going for the double treat: candy on October 31 and money on November 5.
Modern Practices of Halloween
Following World War II and the end of sugar rationing, Halloween became almost a civic affair with block parties and parades. Pranks and mischief were common on Halloween. Wandering groups of celebrants blocked doors of houses with carts, carried away gates and plows, tapped on windows, threw vegetables at doors, and covered chimneys with turf so that smoke could not escape.
In some places, boys and girls dressed in clothing of the opposite sex and, wearing masks, visited neighbors to play tricks. These activities generally resembled the harmful and mischievous behavior attributed to witches, fairies, and goblins.
Mexican influence on Halloween
In the late 20th century Dia de Muertos, or Dia de Los Muertos, became popular in more extensive parts of Mexico than just the central and southern parts of the country, migrating to the north and in parts of the U.S. with Mexican immigrants. “The Day of the Dead,” a public holiday in Mexico, honors the dead, especially children, and harkens back to pre-Columbian indigenous traditions across Mexico and some parts of Latin America, Spain, Italy, and the Philippines.
Celebrated initially during the beginning of Summer before the 16th-century colonization by Spain, it has become syncretized in modern times with the days from October 31 through November 2.
Commercialization of Halloween
Halloween is a huge money-maker, according to retailers, where overall Halloween spending is predicted to hit an all-time high this year:
$10.6B, with $708M spent on pets.
After Christmas and the winter holidays, there are others that lead in spending ahead of Halloween, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but Halloween is the first in terms of candy sales alone:
$3.1B, and that’s a lot
Easter is #2, and Christmas is #3 in terms of candy, but most Americans agree that it certainly has better quality chocolate. Easter has the candy advantage of unique candies available only once a year; Halloween features fun-sized versions of the same candy we can get all year.
Easter examples: Peeps marshmallow chicks, Cadbury Creme Eggs, Jelly Beans, chocolate rabbits, and Reeses Peanut Butter Eggs. (Beware Pumpkin Spice Peeps.)
Not only are candy and costumes popular purchases, but increasingly, houses are being decorated with Halloween lights, skeletons, pumpkins, cobwebs, and tombstones. It’s been said that this is a rare opportunity to bury a dead body in your front yard. Parties are popular and are increasingly being celebrated the weekend before.
- In Boston, for example, Salem is a popular location for these with its month-long Haunted Happenings celebrations — due to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 — and the Massachusetts Turnpike traffic signs point out that Salem can be reached from Boston via Route 1A North.
- In Tokyo, I’ve seen young people dress up in western-style costumes during Halloween, especially in the Harajuku district along the shopping area on Takeshita-dori Street.
Halloween in the U.S.
Though immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland brought secular Halloween customs to the U.S., the festival did not become popular in America until the latter part of the 19th century. This may have been because it had long been popular with the Irish, who migrated to the U.S. in large numbers.
Although some churches observe Halloween with religious services in America, many people consider it a secular festival.
- Other Protestant churches celebrate it as Reformation Day, commemorating October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the northern wooden door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Do you dress up in costume to celebrate Halloween?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Shahid Tink Partman liked this on Facebook.
Halloween was always very popular in our neighborhood when I was young. I recall running from door to door “trick or treating”. Since it was also my birthday, I was the most hyperactive, sugared-up child on the block.