It is that time of year when the leaves turn bright colors, time is spent coming up with that one perfect costume, and people decorate their homes in shades of black, white, orange, and purple. That’s right. It is Halloween. Let’s take a look back at some of the traditions and customs that shaped this amazing holiday. Just for fun as a throwback to all my fellow witches and wizards, I present to you Halloween, A History.
From New Years to Halloween?
Our story starts with the Celts. The Celts lived in what is modern day Ireland, UK, and northern France over 2,000 years ago. Their new year began on November 1. To mark the end of summer and the beginning of another dark, cold winter, the Celtic people celebrated Samhain. Now, for those of you who grew up watching Scooby Doo, like me, you probably pronounced it som-hain. The word is Gaelic though and is pronounced sow-in. If you had heard of som-hain and sow-in believing them to be two different celebrations, now, you know better. You’re welcome. See…isn’t learning fun?
From the bits and pieces archaeologists and historians can piece together, a Samhain festival consisted of bonfires, dressing in costume, and fortune telling. October 31 was believed to be the day when the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest allowing ghosts to return. Offerings were left outside people’s houses or on roads to honor the dead. The costumes were worn so the living could blend in a bit better and not catch the attention of a negative spirit. At the end of the festivities, people would take the flame from the bonfire to light a fire in their hearth at home as a nod to being ready for winter.
I’m sure most of you know that the church has a long history of crafting holidays around previous pagan holidays as a way of luring people away from beliefs the church just didn’t want them to have. The conversation probably went something like this, “I don’t understand why you don’t want to join the church. You celebrate Samhain on November 1. We celebrate on that day too. Come celebrate with us. It will be fun, and then we won’t have to come back, drag you out of your home, and burn you as a witch. Doesn’t that sound like a better outcome?” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but still.
The Catholic church had a celebration called All Martyrs Day. It was first celebrated on May 13, 609. Somewhere in the eighth century, another pope changed the name and the day it was observed. Now, it was called All Saints Day and was celebrated on…you guessed it…November 1. It became common to refer to October 31 as All Hallows Eve.
Still not pleased with the conversion rate, the church introduced All Souls Day as November 2, somewhere around year 1000. It was celebrated with bonfires, parades, and people dressing up in costumes. Sound familiar? Still don’t believe me when I tell you this was a plot to control the pagans? Go research Christmas and Easter and then tell me how you feel. 😏
Coming to America
Early American Halloween celebrations focused primarily on the fall harvest. These were community events where people shared stories of the dead, dabbled in fortune telling, sang, and danced. The celebrations tended to be regional with the strict Protestants abstaining from the fun. Given other historical atrocities committed by some of the early, more devote religious settlers, I’m sure this fact doesn’t shock anyone.
Things changed for the better as more Irish immigrants came to America. It wasn’t just the people who made things better. Their customs and celebrations came with them. So, it is in the early to mid 1800’s that we see Halloween taking root on a national scale in America. With this came the return of costumes and small gift offerings…a fact that children of all ages surely appreciated.
This resurgence also brought back some of the old fortune telling traditions. Young women were known to try divining the name of their future husband using yarn, apple peelings, egg yolks, or mirrors. I’ve even read about one tradition where a woman would give hazelnuts names according to her suitors. The hazelnuts would then be tossed into a fire. The nut that burnt to ash rather than popping was either the one she should or should not marry depending on the version of the tale. This variation leaves a young lady free to follow her heart, or libido, depending on who’s nut got toasted. I’m pro-options, so no complaints here.
Time Marches On
Towards the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there was a strong push to strip away the more frightening, ghoulish aspects of Halloween and make it into a more community, family focused event. In other words, they wanted to take all the fun out of it. I imagine people with these notions are also the ones who thought Prohibition was a great idea. Sadly, these party poopers succeeded. Somewhere around 1920-ish, many of the superstitious, spiritual, and magical traditions had been forgotten…mostly forgotten.
As a way to curb the mischief making (read vandalism) that had become prevalent, “trick or treating” came back with a vengeance by the 1950’s. “Here. I will give you this candy, and you won’t egg my house, roll my yard, break my windows, etc.” Thankfully, it worked. Property owners across the nation could rejoice and rest easy. Little grumpkins with a full belly don’t destroy things nearly as often. Good to know.
Nowadays, Halloween is once again celebrated by the young and the young at heart. Considering that in 2019, Americans spent roughly $490 million dollars on costumes for their pets, even the four-legged children have gotten involved although from the looks on some of their faces, their willingness to be involved is questionable.
You’ll be happy to know the match making portions of the holiday haven’t gone away completely either. The fortune telling aspects aren’t as prevalent, but anyone who’s ever gone to a bar on Halloween knows full well that matches are definitely being made. I can’t help but wonder if I’d toasted a few hazelnuts in the past if that would have spared me some heartache. Guess, we’ll never know. (sigh)
What’s your favorite memory?
There you have it, folks. Halloween, A History skillfully, and irreverently, relayed to you for your enjoyment. Where do you stand on Halloween? Is it all fun and games? Just in it for the candy? Have you ever had a special ghostly encounter on this night when the veil parts? Maybe you have a favorite costume you’ve worn, or seen, that you remember fondly. If you’re like me, you’ve got at least one sexy guy dressed up as a satyr in your past, or maybe for you, it was a girl dressed like Jessica Rabbit. Feel free to let us know in the comments.
Wherever you weigh in on Halloween traditions, I hope you have a wonderfully, magical holiday season.
Want to read more on the history of Halloween? Check out this page on Wikipedia to learn more about it.