As is true with most, if indeed not all, of our Americanized versions of holidays, our celebration of Halloween is a direct manifestation of practices rooted in ancient European traditions.
While different versions of its origin have emerged over the centuries, the modern Halloween of the United States is a relatively new practice.
For instance, the “trick-or-treat” routine that is so prevalent now is less than a century old. Prior to the 1920’s, Halloween was considered a “holiday” for the adults, with the expected indulgence in libations and other sundry activities.
The earliest know practices associated with what we call “Halloween” were conducted over 2,000 years ago by the ancient Celtics in what is now Ireland and the United Kingdom. For this culture, the 1st of November was considered the beginning of winter’s cold and dreary days which were in turn associated with death and disease.
Consequently, the festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) was held as a means of appeasing the deities and hopefully lessening the degree of dread that the upcoming winter would bring.
It was also assumed by these superstitious peoples that the transitioning period between summer and winter was characterized by a blurring of boundaries between the world of the living and that of the dead.
While most peasants and laypersons were fearful of any confused apparitions wandering amongst them (they would thus don costumes and masks to ward off the unwanted visitors from the netherworld), Celtic priests (called Druids) actually welcomed this opportunity to perhaps glean information from the spiritual beings as a means of enhancing predictions of upcoming events. Bonfires would subsequently be built in order to provide the ghosts a focal point of guidance to be closer to the Druids.
A transition point in the holiday occurred as a function of Roman occupation. By 43 A.D, the Romans had conquered and occupied most of the Celtic territory and proceeded to impose their customs – including holidays and the ways in which such should be commemorated – upon the locals.
Just as was to become true of Christmas and Easter, the Roman version of Halloween effectively superseded, but did NOT totally eliminate, the ideas and customs of the Celtics. The result was an amalgam of the Celtics’ Samhain rituals and the Roman approaches to celebrating the festivals of Feralia (the commemoration of the passing of the dead) and Pamona, the goddess of fruits (particularly apples – thus our tradition of “bobbing”) and trees.
A series of papal decrees effectively altered the perception and meaning of Halloween. During the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as the day to honor Christian martyrs and saints (thus the term “All Hallowed Saints Day” and, consequently, “All Hallowed Saints Eve”).
By the ninth century, the influence of Christianity became predominant throughout the former Celtic lands, and in 1000 A.D. the church decided to explicitly honor the dead, making November 2 “All Souls Day” as a supplement to the existent November 1st recognition of saints and martyrs. While this may have been a thinly-veiled attempt by the Roman Catholics to simply replace the Celtic festival of the dead with their own version of a related church-sanctioned holiday, it remained characterized by the same bonfires, parades and costumes implemented by the Celtics.
Halloween in America continued the evolution of customs and rituals. Religion exercised a direct effect on Halloween practices in Colonial New England as the rigid Protestantism beliefs severely restricted the “paganistic rituals” associated with the British celebrations of All Hallowed Saints Eve.
Maryland and the colonies further south were a bit more liberal with their allowance of public gatherings and the sharing of “ghost stories,” and a gradual recognition of the American Indians’ celebration of the summer harvests led to the beginnings of how we now conduct our Halloween celebrations.
The nationalization of Halloween can be attributed to the influx of immigrants into America during the mid 1800’s. The millions of Irish fleeing the potato famine brought their traditions of turnip carving (yes, the original “Jack-O-Lantern” was a turnip, not a pumpkin), playing pranks on neighbors, and dressing in costume while going house to house asking for food or money.
Halloween parties of the late 1800s through the 1920s were primarily for the adults, not the kids. Community-oriented gatherings and neighborhood parties gradually supplanted the ideas of ghosts and goblins, and any “frightening” aspects of the festivities were discouraged. Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, Halloween had lost much of its association with its origins, and this approach continued until the 1930s.
But a return to its roots was not long in coming for Halloween. By the mid 1930s, the secular, community-centered holiday began to be plagued by vandalism and a re-emergence of “pranks” being played upon unsuspecting (and thus unprepared) victims. The baby boom of the post WWII years only served to exacerbate the need to appease the growing throngs of children.
By the early 1950s there were simply too many youngsters to continue the civic center community gatherings so such parties were gradually moved to the school classrooms and then to individual homes before reestablishing the “tradition” of going back out into the neighborhood to be better entertained.
So, essentially, our modern-day trick-or-treating ritual was reincarnated from the centuries-old practice as nothing more than a way of getting kids out of the house for awhile.
This “new” American tradition allows for an expenditure of an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween (second only to Christmas) and roughly 25 percent of all annual candy sales in the United States can be attributed to this holiday.