A Brief History of Halloween Traditions

When you get right down to it, the idea of carving a design into a pumpkin and sticking a candle inside it is more than a little odd. The same goes for putting on a costume and walking door-to-door demanding treats in exchange for not pulling a trick on the homeowner. Yet the customs of gourd mutilation and candy-based protection rackets have been acceptable on the last day of October in North America, Australia, and large swaths of Europe for nearly a century.

Recent popular culture would have us believe that Halloween, as we know it today, is based totally upon the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Numerous horror movies and novels have played up the idea that human sacrifices were a routine part of Samhain and other practices of the Druid Priests of the time. The fact is that there are almost no first-hand accounts of Samhain from before the invasions of the Roman Empire. Many of the historical texts from circa 100 BC concerning human sacrifices and other grisly acts of violence supposedly committed by the people of Northern Europe and the areas that would become Ireland and The United Kingdom were written by Julius Caesar and other Roman scholars. These accounts are not first-hand and it would be safe to assume that the Romans, seeking to expand their empire would present a less than generous view of the people they were trying to conquer.

Most historians now believe that Samhain was likely an agricultural festival that marked the period of preparing for the coming winter. It was also the time that the veil between the living and the dead was believed to be most transparent, leading to the tradition of wearing masks and other disguises to hide from souls that may have crossed into the land of the living and leaving out offerings of food to the spirits to appease them. By 5th century AD, Christianity was spreading throughout most of Europe and had started to make inroads into Ireland. In an attempt to convert the people of Ireland who still adhered to Pagan rituals and beliefs, in 8th century AD the Catholic Church implemented All Saints’ Day to be held on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. But this did not end the traditions of Samhain, which was moved to the night before All Saints’ Day, becoming All Hallows’ Eve.

All Hallows’ Eve continued the practice of wearing disguises to trick souls that might be lurking about. The offering of food to appease spirits eventually morphed into people wearing costumes to impersonate the dead and accept the food on their behalf. All Hallows’ Eve even incorporated the myth of “Stingy Jack,” a character who tricked the Devil and was cursed to walk the Earth for eternity after being turned away from both Heaven and Hell. To ward off Jack’s soul, people would carve demonic faces into turnips. This practice led to placing candles in the turnips, creating lanterns to scare off spirits in the dark.In the late 18th century, the practice of children wearing costumes and going home to home, reciting verses for food on All Hallows’ Eve was first recorded in Ireland. If the owners of the home provided food, they would have good luck, but if they turned the children down, bad luck would fall upon them.

Following the great potato famine in mid-19th century Ireland, the United States saw a huge increase of Irish immigrants. The immigrants brought with them the traditions of All Hallows’ Eve and over the years, the traditions evolved. Wearing disguises and going home-to-home, reciting verses for food became trick-or-treating as we know it today. The trick part of course referring to the mischief that early 20th century children would get up to if not rewarded with a treat. The carving of turnips gave way to the larger canvas of the pumpkin and, while the original practice of the carving to scare away evil spirits has receded from the intent, it is still traditional for jack-o-lanterns to have frightening faces.

For more reading on the origins of Halloween, check out Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal (John T. Richardson Library stacks, call number 394.2646 S626d2002) or Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers.

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