October 26, 2012

Historical Origins Of Halloween (Part 2)

Halloween and Fall festivals are starting up all over America, getting ready for October 31, 2012.  Pumpkin patches and corn mazes and haunted houses are set up to thrill and amaze us.

My first year of college, five of my friends and I dressed up as harem girls.  A very tall male friend dressed up as our harem guard and we set out to trick or treat all of our professors.  We picked up G.I. Jane and Maxwell Smart and a few other costumed friends and filled our bags with candy, food, and beer.  Hey, this was college!  You should ask about presidential debates with our Political Science professor if you really want to hear about parties.

Anyway… My point is that Halloween in America is different.  How did it go from an ancient Celtic religious ceremony to the party it is now in America?

In the beginning, Halloween was very limited in the American colonies.  The Protestant belief systems in the New England colonies were rigid and didn’t leave much room for fun, or “pagan” celebrations… and certainly not Catholic celebrations.  Down in Maryland and the southern colonies, according to, things were a little looser and Halloween celebrations were more common.  What made the celebration distinctly American, though, was the meshing of different European groups with the Native Americans.

“Play parties” were a big part of the early Halloween festivities.  These were public events to celebrate the harvest.  People would share ghost stories, tell each other’s fortunes, and have dances and sing-along parties.  Mischief making of all kinds was also a regular part of the celebration. However fun these parties were, Halloween still hadn’t caught on for the whole country by the middle of the 19th century.

A flood of new immigrants in the middle of the 1800s, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the potato famine of 1846, helped to take the celebration of Halloween national.  English and Irish immigrants brought their traditions of costumes and going door to door asking for food and money.  This eventually became the “trick-or-treat” tradition of today. Young women of this time believed that they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband on Halloween by doing tricks with yarn, or mirrors.

By the late 1800s, people were pushing to make American Halloween celebrations more about community and neighborhood get-togethers, rather than ghosts, pranks and witchcraft.  Parties, both for children and adults, that focused on games, food, and costumes became the norm. Newspapers urged parents to take the frightening, grotesque aspects out of Halloween, taking most of the superstitious and religious overtones out of the celebrations by the early 20th century.  Trick-or-treating fell by the wayside during this time.

In the 1930’s Halloween had lost almost all of its religious overtones, becoming a community centered holiday with parades and town-wide parties.  Trick or treating revived. The mischief making of the early colonial parties transformed as well into vandalism.

The baby boom of the 1950s changed Halloween once again.  Parties moved from civic centers to homes and classrooms, where they were more controllable.  Trick-or-treating became the community part of the celebration, and a way to “bribe” youngsters not to vandalize the neighborhood.

Halloween continues to change and evolve.  Many small towns host trick or treating parties in downtown, or in the local shopping mall to give kids a safe place to dress up and fill their bags with candy.  Bars and pubs host parties for adults, in fact I’m headed out to the Zombie Pub Crawl Saturday here in my home town.  I haven’t heard of apple bobbing, or hayrides, or even trick or treating your professors lately, but I’m sure Halloween lovers out there are having fun.

This is how a pre-Christian Celtic religious celebration of harvest and death became the $6 billion dollar commercial industry that Halloween is today in America.

Image Credit: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

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