Many people who find out I’m obsessed with Halloween ask me about the history of the 3,000-year-old holiday. So I’m presenting a “condensed version” of that history here, for blog readers who might be curious but don’t want to read entire books on the topic.
I am not a historian. I have gathered the following information from some of the Halloween history books I like. My sources are listed at the bottom of this post.
I apologize for leaving out — in the interest of brevity — so many details these authors have diligently covered, but I hope you find this “quick history lesson” somewhat informative and/or interesting.
- Pre-Christianity, the ancient Celts observed Samhain (pronounced “SOW-in”; meaning “summer’s end”) in the fall. It was their New Year. They celebrated with bonfires and feasts, and slaughtered animals for winter meat. They believed that the spirits of the dead were more likely to enter the world of the living during this sacred “in-between” time, which straddled abundant summer and harsh winter.
- Christianity spread throughout Europe, and paganism was condemned as demonic. Samhain was incorporated into the Catholics’ All Saints’ Day (referred to as “Hallowmas,” meaning “sacred festival”) and All Souls’ Day, sanctifying the holiday but allowing it to maintain its focus on celebrating the dead. It became popular for the poor to beg for food door-to-door in return for praying for deceased loved ones.
- The word for October 31, the day before Catholic Hallowmas, was “Hallow’s Eve,” a.k.a. “Halloween.” The date soon became its own standalone day of celebration, observed separately from All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1).
- Beginning in the Medieval era, the plague gave birth to the Grim Reaper archetype, and paranoia about witchcraft sparked the persecution of witches, who were said to dance with the Devil. By then, the Catholics had officially outlawed paganism, but protestants defiantly kept celebrating.
- Scotland and Ireland, fertile home of the Pagan rituals that led to many Halloween traditions, also continued to observe Halloween with bonfires. These were lit to help guide dead spirits home and to protect from witches and malicious fairies who lurked in the forests. Bonfires also offered a convenient way to dispose of the leftovers from autumn harvest. It was in Ireland that the first jack-o-lanterns were carved — using turnips rather than pumpkins — depicting frightening faces intended to scare off evil spirits.
- Puritans were opposed to sinful Halloween (though not to witch-hanging; that was apparently wholesome), but other colonists still believed in magic and told ghost stories. Thanks to the Native Americans, farmers discover a better gourd: the pumpkin.
- Irish immigrants came to the U.S. and brought Halloween with them. It spread as quickly as germs in a plastic mask. Within decades, American Victorians were reveling in the holiday: throwing parties, establishing the first seasonal decorations, and donning costumes. Halloween fortune-telling games became wildly popular, especially for young adults looking for their soulmates.
- By the mid 1900s, Halloween morphed into more of a child-centric holiday featuring candy and spooky G-rated games, plus door-to-door costumed visits. Though there were treats, tricks were also common, as many children pulled pranks on their neighbors. In fact, the earliest parades and “haunted houses,” held at community centers like gyms and churches, were attempts to keep tabs on kids and reign in their mischief.
- Thanks in part to good-ol’ American marketing and advertising, by the 1970s, Halloween had become a huge phenomenon in the U.S., with TV shows, products, and commercial goods devoted to the holiday. As artistic representations of Halloween in media and film became increasingly sophisticated, they also became scarier, attracting more adult fans in addition to the already-hooked kiddie crowd.
- Nowadays, Halloween is more popular than it has ever been. The holiday has started catching on in farther corners of the globe and is becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
Sources: Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (L. Morton), Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History (L. Bannatyne), and Death Makes a Holiday (D. Skal).
Images via the 365 Days of Halloween Tumblr.