“This is Halloween!”: A History, Part 1

digital comics museum. Beyond 001

In this special article, Ginnis sought out a historian to reveal some of the secrets behind the history of this great season. Fortunately, she discovered a “Mad Historian” who takes a perverse pleasure in tackling the maddeningly mundane questions that plague so many of us like “How did Halloween come to be?” In Part 1 of this two part series, the Mad Historian tells the tale of the origins of Halloween in America.

“This is Halloween, this is Halloween. Halloween! Halloween! Halloween! Halloween!”

Now try getting that song out of your head. If you don’t know that song, I’m shocked, and you should go watch The Nightmare Before Christmas immediately. I’ll wait.

Now, have you ever wondered why Halloween is the way it is? Why do we dress up? Why do we go house to house for candy? (I use “we” loosely here.) Why do so many scary stories revolve around October 31st? I’ve heard theories over the years but never much in the way of hard evidence, and that is simply unacceptable. It’s time to shrug into a lab coat, snap on some gloves, and start digging into the gory mess of historical research. One way or another, we will stitch together the Frankenstein that is the history of Halloween. As we build up to the electrifying answers, I’ll narrow in on Halloween in America, but first we must work through a dark and stormy backstory of European traditions!

A tiny disclaimer: Keep in mind that much of what we “know” about Halloween comes from folklorists who frequently depend on oral traditions and other sometimes unreliable sources that tend to make many historians a little cranky. Fortunately, I love a good story and hopefully you will, too.

Halloween is generally considered to have pagan origins, reaching back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which means Summer’s End. However! We can’t disregard the influence of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess of the harvest and orchards; the Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls Days, coincidentally where the name Halloween comes from (we’ll get to that soon); and the English celebration of Guy Fawke’s Day. These celebrations and festivals melded, adjusted, and finally made it to North America, gradually morphing into the candy-filled, costumed holiday we all adore. Halloween is nothing if not adaptable.

The ancient Celtic peoples, though frequently associated with Ireland, actually stretched across what is now the United Kingdom, Ireland, Northern France, and Brittany (part of Northern France long owned by England). Samhain, the Celt’s festival to mark the end of summer, was a time to reorganize communities for winter: bring in the herds; make room for the warriors, priests, and other wondering members of their communities, etc. This was also the time when the herds were thinned via annual slaughter and darkness began to overtake the land.

Samhain was a festival of liminalities, a festival of thresholds. I personally think winter would be terrifying if you thought the sun was dying like the Celtic people of the time. This was a time for prophesies and rituals because the barriers between this plane of existence and the Otherworld were thinned and the spirits that now had free range to wonder and give power to predictions held the secrets of the afterlife and future:

“Because life itself was literally in the balance at harvest, the close proximity of the visible world and the spirit world was more than metaphor.  And so the tradition grew: for one night each year, permission would be granted to mortals to peer into the future, divine their fates, communicate with supernatural entities, and otherwise enjoy a degree of license and liberty unimaginable – or simply unattainable – the rest of the year.” (3)

Daisy L. Key_black cat
The Mad Historian continues to follow the Druid tradition of black cat worship. Please meet Gordon Ramsey (left) and Winston Churchill (right).

Celts believed that this night was also the night that the Lord of the Dead held court for all the lost souls that had died in the past year.  The bad souls had to spend the next year of their afterlife in the form of an animal, while the good souls could retain their human shape. Like any good deity, this Lord of the Dead could be bribed to pick a better animal shape, maybe a dog instead of a rat. On the subject of animals, Celtic Druids also apparently held black cats sacred, as we all should, but there’s no evidence of a direct connection between their adoration of black cats to our Halloween black cat.

The Roman festival of Pomona is important because of the goddess’s connection to the harvest, which helped establish the importance of harvest fruits, vegetables, and nuts to future incarnations of Halloween.  Also celebrated at the turning of the seasons, the festival of Pomona tended to merge with Samhain when the Romans invaded Celtic territory. One big happy harvest festival! With ancestral ghosts and fairies… oh my!

The Catholic All Saints and All Souls Days, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, are often considered to be attempts to Christianize Samhain, but that’s not quite true. All Saints Day was first celebrated in May, 610 AD by Pope Boniface IV as a way to recognize the early Christians who died for their beliefs. Pope Gregory III re-established the holiday in the 8th century AD and moved it to November. Pope Gregory IV then expanded the holiday to include all Catholic saints. All Souls Day was established in the early 9th century AD and approved by Pope Sylvester II around 1000 AD.

Church history claims All Saints was created at the request of the Benedictine abbot Saint Odilo of Cluny because of a directive in the scripture, but the folk version claims that a pilgrim who shipwrecked met a hermit who heard tormented souls screaming out of a gorge then took the story back to Odilo. The folk versions are always so much more interesting! All Souls was gradually shifted to be the day after All Saints because the saints could act as intercessors for the souls facing divine judgement. Once Catholicism moved North and intertwined with Samhain and Pomona’s festival, the holiday began to be almost recognizable as we know it today.

Hallowtide (All Saints and All Souls Days combined) became known as a time of flagrant violation of norms, role reversals, and shaming rituals.  All Saints and All Souls specifically helped formalize aspects of modern Halloween, such as visiting house to house for “soul cakes” and the acknowledgement of ghosts and hauntings, but the most important thing they gave to our modern holiday, in my opinion, is the name:

Hallow is another name for saint or holy person. All Saints Day = All Hallows Day.  The day before = All Hallows Eve -> All Halloweve -> Hallowe’en -> Halloween!

When the Reformation happened and everything Catholic had to be repudiated, Hallowtide and All Hallows Eve began to fall to the wayside in much of Europe. Fortunately, Ireland and Scotland kept a lot of their traditions, and England began celebrating Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th, 1605. Guy Fawkes Day, for anyone who hasn’t read or watched V for Vendetta, was the day Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the British parliament. He was captured and executed but became a symbol for England’s “deliverance from Catholic menace” (1). These celebrations were rowdy with lots of mischief-making and other not normally acceptable behavior and frequently included masking.

Now, let’s cross oceans. When European settlers first came to what is now known as the United States, they brought their traditions with them; however, fall festivals were spotty and not Halloween as we know it.  The Puritans especially, while believing in the supernatural and witches, were adamantly against any fun holidays and refused to participate. They considered it “an unnecessary concession to the Antichrist” (1). By the way, the idea of evil witches was firmly established in the Americas around the 17th century. We’ll talk more about witches in Part 2. Fortunately for us, the Puritans hold eventually loosened and Halloween as a holiday officially “debuted” in the 1870s. I wonder what they’d think of an angel blessing witches:

Hocus Pocus screenshots

Prior the 20th century, Halloween was more about divinations and finding future love than about scares and ghosts. Young men would bob for apples, hoping that if they got one their love would be returned. Young women peeled apples in one long strip and threw it over their shoulder, hoping the peel would show the initial of their future husband. People would place two nuts together in the fire and if the nuts stayed together, the nut-placer’s romance was secure, but if they flew apart, their romance was doomed. (See the connection to Pomona’s apples and nuts mentioned earlier?) However, Halloween was already becoming commercialized. Masks for Halloween were available to buy as early as 1874 and candy had already become a thing by 1897.

Old Halloween masks
Why is it that the creepiest Halloween masks are the ones from days long past?

The Victorian Era was concerned with subduing Halloween, making it safe for delicate sensibilities. No more talk of death and such. This concern for safe, subdued fun, for playfully formalizing fear, began the process of transforming Halloween into more of a children’s holiday. People in the Victorian Era even threw children’s Halloween parties with themes like Cinderella!

By the time the 20th century rolled around, divination began to die down and even superstition began to take a back seat. The fascination with the spectacle and the marketability of fear and terror began as early as the 1930s. Pranks, always an active source of adolescent entertainment, remained popular so trick or treating began to be formalized as a way to marginalize pranking and defuse the antagonism of the mainly young men who were causing some serious damage with their pranks. Outhouses, readers. I don’t want to get into further detail.

As World War II came and went and returning soldiers got busy re-populating, America’s baby boom in the 1950s made Halloween even more of a children’s event. The post-war hope of being able to be whatever you want trickled down to the young Americans and became entwined with post-war society’s mass consumerism. Parents wanted their kids to have fun with Halloween but were also concerned with making the holiday as safe as possible. They wanted to allow their kids a little safe danger, so to speak, but increasingly stressed the growing mistrust of strangers. Kids were still off to bed before dark, after a safe and supervised trick or treating session and, as of the 1960s, only then were young adults allowed to take over the night. Halloween was apparently the second most important party night of the year behind Christmas. I don’t remember ever getting wild and crazy over Christmas, but I’ll roll with it.

There you have it, a quick overview of Halloween. I’ll leave you with a couple thoughts:

“Halloween has its essential roots in the terrors of the primitive mind, which made no distinction between the waning of the sun and the potential extinction of the self.” (3)

If you want to engage your own inner Mad Historian, check out the following sources:

  1. Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 1998.
  3. Skal, David J. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2002.
  4. Kelley, A.M., Ruth Edna. The Book of Hallowe’en. Norwood, Massachusetts: Norwood Press, 1919.
  5. 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.

Steph A. Hawk

Steph A. Hawk

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.