The Rookie’s Guide to the History of Halloween

Humans. It is only when we step outside our own perspectives do we realize just how strange we are with our own traits, customs and holidays. Even nature itself can get downright bizarre, but that is a topic for another time. Take Halloween, for example. All year long adults tell children not to talk to or take candy from strangers – except for Halloween, where it is completely acceptable for them to walk around their neighborhoods and ask for candy from strangers while wearing costumes.

We embrace this culture all over the world because it is the one time in a year where we are free to dress up as someone from our favorite sci-fi movie, or maybe a cool, historical icon. No matter who you are, you can always be somebody else on Halloween – and we love it precisely for that reason. Like all holidays, Halloween also comes with a colorful history. I’m here to tell you everything you need to know about how it all began.

Halloween History - Trick or Treat

Halloween History - Where it all began…

First off, Halloween hasn’t always been known as such in other places around the world. It goes by many names and it is celebrated differently for each country. Names such as All Hallows Evening, All Saints’ Eve, All Hallows’ Eve, and Allhalloween have been used to refer to this holiday that was originally intended to honor the dead. No matter what the name may be, Halloween was originally a Celtic holiday, which was originally called the feast of Samhain – also celebrated each year, on October 31st. Samhain is a Gaelic festival that marks the beginning of winter and the end of the harvesting season. Initially, people set up sacred bonfires to celebrate this festival.

Now, the Celts took this festival into a completely different level. They were convinced that on this night, the ghosts of those who have passed take a trip back to the land of the living, and they just can’t have those ghosts wreaking havoc to their crops. Since it was believed that this even heightens the powers of the Druids and priests, they used this opportunity to make certain predictions. They used these prophecies to guide them through the dark winter nights. It also involves the burning of sacrificial crops and animals and the wearing of costumes. Granted, these costumes were mostly composed of severed animal heads, I think you get the picture. This IS the origin of Halloween. Fast forward to the Roman Empire’s occupation of Celtic lands, certain Roman festivals were then combined with some of the locals’ holidays, including – yep, you’ve guessed it – the feast of Samhain.

Now, like a lot of ancient and Pagan holidays, Christianity came into picture. The bonfires and the costumes – although slightly different – remained, but the purpose deviated to some degree. In a lot of Christian countries, Christians have made a habit of attending church, lighting candles on top of their loved ones’ graves, and offering prayers to the dearly departed as a religious observance.

Halloween History - celebration

The American Halloween begins…

In the 19th century, that’s when the uniquely American Halloween version truly became more popular. During this time, the event has already deviated from its origins and started including ghost stories, parties, and fortune-telling. I’m telling you, this is also the time that we can attribute to the beginning of Halloween pranks, because, apparently, folks have started causing mischief and all kinds of trouble.

When even more immigrants came to the country for one reason or another, they also helped spread the love for this holiday, which was now slightly more fun and entertaining to people of all ages. It didn’t have the same grim connotation that it did hundreds of years prior. And then, just when you think it couldn’t be better, people started knocking on strangers’ doors; thus, the early version of trick-or-treating was born.

Although not as fun as what we have now, trick-or-treating back then had the same elements as the modern version. People went door-to-door to offer prayers for the dead while singing hymns. Handing our baked goods – formerly known as ‘soul cakes’ was believed to be their way of appeasing the souls of those who have passed away.

For the Gaelic, Irish, and Celtic people, Samhain meant that spirits were able to come to the real world more easily on this day and wreak havoc. In Ireland, to be more specific, people prayed and lit candles for the souls of the dead. Nobody wants their grandparents nagging them about not leaving food at the doorstep, so pretty much a lot of people performed that ritual.

Not only that, but people also did this for the needy who came knocking at their doors – not just for children who threatened to TP their houses or throw eggs at their cars if they didn’t comply with their demands for sweets.

Halloween History - Props

More neighborly love for everyone

Near the end of the 19th century, America turned Halloween into a more neighborhood friendly tradition. It was all about community back then. That’s when neighbors started parties or get-togethers in order to exchange ghost stories and perform witchcraft. You read that right. Good, old witchcraft. Summoning circles, black outfits, and voodoo dolls were then turned into the parties that are more child-friendly. I guess they grew tired of the sacrificial lambs and hex bags. Nobody wanted any of that near their children. Despite that, however, witchcraft remained an important element in the modern-day version of Halloween. The witch persona makes its appearance yearly to haunt the dreams of children who don’t drink their milk at bedtime!

Anyway, they used all sorts of propaganda to spread the love for Halloween. They took none of the more grotesque elements and replaced it with wholesome fun and tradition. If you think about it, people would have lost their minds if they saw one of the partygoers wore a headdress made out of a real animal’s head. Times’ a-changing.

Ironically, the grotesque elements have made their comeback. You’ll see how scary and eerily realistic these costumes and Halloween props are and wonder if the gory and frightening elements really did leave the picture.

Halloween Parties and Games

Traditionally with Halloween of the past, there were games people played. They weren’t quite like today’s games and often included divination where people would try to foretell how many children their friends would have, who someone would marry, or who would be dying. This mainly took place in the Middle Ages when Christianity dominated Europe, but you can imagine the Christians of today wanting to say a few choice words to their ancestors. But, hey, whatever floats their boats. It would be so fun to use a time machine with our knowledge of practical effects and cause so much mischief back then. Hilarity at Halloween would ensue.

Other games involved bobbing for apples or peeling an apple in one long strip and tossing the peeling over one’s shoulder. This was supposed to be another form of divination where the peel was supposed to land in the shape of the first letter of their future spouse’s name. How the peel would form the letters A, E, F, H, K, M, T, and W is beyond me, but I have never lived in the Middle Ages, so I’m not one to judge. Those poor women would be in shock once they married a William, Abraham, Ethan, Fergus, Henry, Matthew, or a Killian. Unless it became one of those self-fulfilling prophecy types where they only pursued people with the letter that came out of the apple peeling prophecy. You laugh now, but your ancestors may as well have been wed based on that premise alone. Who’s laughing now, huh?

Halloween Party

Other things you may want to know

  • For some other religious perspectives on Halloween, it is not permitted to be observed by those who practice Judaism as they are forbidden from joining the customs of non-Jewish people. The same goes for Muslims. Hinduism has its own festival for remembering the dead, called Pitru Paksha, which is supposed to keep the dead souls at rest. Regardless of religion, there is an awful lot of worry about dead souls returning to this world all throughout history and all around the world. It is interesting that people would think that the souls would need food and drink.
  • Some South Americans and Europeans of Hispanic heritage have all but stuck to the general musings of the traditional Halloween celebration. They have their own version, which is just as amusing but much more colorful and festive. For three days, starting on October 31st, they celebrate what is known as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Speaking of which, if you haven’t seen the movie Coco yet, you better see it now because everyone who did loved it. Don’t forget to pack your tissues, though. It’s a real tearjerker. Anyway, Dia de los Muertos is a special occasion wherein souls were thought to crossover to the land of the living. It is a very intricate and awe-inspiring holiday filled with traditional food, marigolds, and skulls – lots of it. The marigolds, formerly known as ‘Flower of the Dead’, are said to attract the spirits and guide them to the homes of their families.
  • Orange and black are the two primary colors that you can see on Halloween, but did you know that there is actually a less sinister meaning to it? Well, a notch or two less sinister. Orange is meant to be the color of harvest and autumn, while black signifies death – not human death, but rather the death of summer. It’s an homage to the changing of seasons, saying goodbye to your harvesting season and welcoming winter. The “A Song of Ice and Fire” quotes, “winter is coming,” and “for the night is dark and full of terrors” have both been taken at a slightly different context. No whitewalkers, sure, but still terrifying in the ancient times.
  • Lightbulb
    Another silly thing that used to be a big deal on Halloween in the past revolved around our feline friends – the black ones. That’s right, black cats were so notorious on Halloween because it was believed that they brought bad luck and disaster. I don’t know about you, but I have a black cat and the only thing he brings is dead spiders, which I’m not complaining about, mind you.
  • Lightbulb
    Jack-o-Lanterns are fun to make and they certainly add that element of springtime to the whole motif of Halloween. However, they were not the only things carved on Halloween in the past. There’s another, much smaller version of the carved pumpkin: turnips, beets, and potatoes. That’s right. People used to make lamps out of these foods by carving them and putting charcoal inside. Pretty nifty, huh?
Halloween History

On a final note…

This crash course on the history of Halloween sure doesn’t cover everything. After all, Halloween has a rich history of notable cultural practices and origins that had symbolic meanings to the people who have observed it for a long time. It doesn’t matter where it came from. What’s important is that we have the Halloween that we all know and have come to love.

It’s more than just the parties, the candy, costumes, and the other, fancier trappings of it all. Halloween is all about respecting tradition, a way of looking back at the origin of humanity itself, so that we may know where we’ve been – and where we’re possibly headed.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that even a few decades or centuries, Halloween will continue to evolve. It will stand the test of time, and will continue on as one of our most favorite annual holidays. You can even make up your own version of Halloween with your own family and friends. Add a little something here and there, or change what is already there to begin with, what’s important is that you have an idea how it all began and that we all continue this tradition that has already stood the test of time.

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