The Mad Historian returns in Part 2 of “This is Halloween!” a two-part series that looks into the history of Halloween traditions, symbols, and more. Part 2 is a quick and dirty look at a few specifically American Halloween tradition for those history-loving folks who are intrigued by Halloween’s convoluted past. For an overview of how Halloween came to be in America, click here here.
To very quickly summarize the holiday, Halloween grew out of the Celtic Samhain festival, the Roman festival for the harvest goddess Pomona, and Hallowtide (or All Saints and All Souls Days). After much intermingling and traveling, Halloween finally settled into what we now know as the best candy and costume day of the year. Today, we’ll delve into the back stories of jack o’lanterns, trick or treating, costumes, and Halloween witches.
According to various folktales, Jack was a stingy man who managed to trick the devil a few times. When he finally died, Heaven refused to accept him, and the devil turned him away from Hell. However, before doing so, the Devil grudgingly threw Jack a glowing coal, which Jack caught in a hollowed turnip and used to light his way. Imagine Europeans delight coming to America and finding that squash, especially pumpkins, were so much easier to carve than turnips and beets! The first spooky use of a pumpkin in American culture actually wasn’t a Jack o’Lantern, but just a plain pumpkin in Washington Irving’s 1819 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But, by 1890, carving pumpkins was integral to the spooky factor.
Trick or Treating
Trick or treating grew from a few different branches of the history of Hallowtide. Samhain, Hallowtide, and Guy Fawkes Day all had versions of going house to house for food and drink, but the practice grew popular as a Halloween tradition between 1920 and 1950. During World War II, children used trick or treating for charity. Anyone remember those UNICEF boxes?
Those were a holdover from World War II, though UNICEF caught a lot of shit for giving money to Communist-sympathizing organizations:
Safety concerns arose in the 1970s over poisoned candy and razor blades in apples, though most of the claims were never proven true. These days, you can take kids to various “Trunk or Treat” events at local churches and community centers or go trick or treating through malls, though many holdovers and traditionalists still go door-to-door.
Like trick or treating, costumes were handed down to us from many of the fall festivals. During Samhain, the Celts would dress as gruesome monsters to discourage evil spirits from coming into their homes. Hallowtide was known for masking and Guy Fawkes Day encouraged costumes. Masquerades during the fall and winter holiday season were common. The idea was to discard identity and mock and circumvent authority. Cross dressing was also common. It wasn’t until the 1950s that costumes began to be seriously gendered: brides, fairies, and princesses versus army men and hobos. Now we have so many options, it’s always hard to choose. “Traditional” monster, politician or celebrity, historical or mythological figure, or some aspect of modern culture; it’s a tough choice. Or you could always go the route of sexy and skimpy: sexy Big Bird, sexy Jiminy Cricket, sexy Crayon, etc.
I dressed as a witch for Halloween for probably seven years in a row as a kid. I basically just wanted to be a witch. When my sister and best friend wanted to play dolls and house, I played witches, though if I had known some of the history I know now that play could have taken a darker turn. But I digress.
In 1486/7, two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, published Malleus Maleficarum, which was basically the end-all, be-all for how witches are evil and associated with Satan and demons. Though the symbol of the broomstick-riding crone dates to the 1450s, this book really settled the “facts.” Before this, witches flew to commune with their evil gods (usually nature gods of some sort), but after the book, their gods became Satan specifically and new witches were “pricked by a needle” in initiation. (That’s not really saying much for Satan’s penis…)
Witches could apparently be known by an extra nipple or “witches teat” where they would suckle their familiars on human blood. These teats could be found anywhere on the body, but especially around the genitals and anus, which was basically just letting Puritans and other prudes get off on strip-searching people without feeling guilty about sexuality. (Fun fact: It was even believed that one way you could identify a witch was whether she cut off men’s penises, attached them to trees, and fed them oats.) Witch imagery was basically twisted versions of female domesticity: women clean, cook, nurture children; witches fly on broomsticks greased with the fat of murdered babies, cook potions, and suckle familiars. Of course, Freud had to come in a few hundred years later and say that broomstick riding was sexual. Mind your own business, you dirty old man.
Anyway, the people who really suffered from these accusations were usually cantankerous women, frequently forty to sixty years old, with a lower social rank, and who dabbled in herbalism. These women were perfect scapegoats. Also affected were any women that some community member resented for being in some position of power. This led to the legendary Salem Witch Trials, which I unfortunately can’t get into here. By the 1900s, witch Noir set in with movies like The Wizard of Oz. By the 1960s, new age witchcraft, or Wicca, began. In backlash, accusations of neo-Satanism began in the 1980s, though the first empirical study to refute existence of satanic cults was published in 1994.
If you want to engage your own inner Mad Historian, check out the following sources:
- Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 1998.
- Skal, David J. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2002.
- Kelley, A.M., Ruth Edna. The Book of Hallowe’en. Norwood, Massachusetts: Norwood Press, 1919.
- Santino, Jack. “Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances.” Western Folklore 42 (1983): 1-20.
The Mad Historian, also known as Steph F. Hawk, is a book-loving, cat-loving, and tea-loving historian who loves a good story. Historical inaccuracies and sexism make her cranky, but a good piece of pie will make her purr like a kitten.