Once again I am so grateful for Martin Tanner’s contributions to our website. Martin has spent much time in researching and writing about the origins and history of Halloween and he is allowing us to share his knowledge with you. I hope you enjoy reading this comprehensive history and gain a better understanding of this wonderful holiday and what makes it such an important part of our culture today.
THE ORIGINS OF HALLOWEEN
Martin Tanner October 31, 2010
Today, Halloween brings to mind children in costumes going door-todoor
for trick-or-treat candy. But this is a recent part of Halloween. Most
people do not think of Halloween as a Christian holiday. Although, like
Christmas, Halloween retains elements of ancient pagan holidays and rituals,
its core is Christian. Even the name Halloween is of Christian origin.
Halloween practices and observances, Christian and pagan, date back nearly
two thousand years.
Behind the Name
Halloween, or the Hallow E’en as it is called in England and Ireland,
means All Hallows Eve or All Holy Evening the night before All Saints’ Day
which was also called All Hallows, All Hallowmas or All Saints or All Souls’
Day, observed on November 1st. In old English, the word “Hallow” meant
“holy.” Roman Catholics andmany but not all Protestant denominations used
to observe All Saints’ Day to honor all Saints in heaven, known or unknown.
It was a very important, solemn day, one of the most important Christian
Holidays of the year. An important part of All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day
was to honor the dead. It was celebrated with bonfires, parades, and dressing
up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils, a tradition which over time
has today become the costumes children wear while trick-or-treating.
Pagans from Roman times observed three holidays honoring the dead.
Perhaps the most important of these was Feralia, intended to give rest and
peace to the dead. Participants made sacrifices in honor of the dead, offered
up prayers for them, andmade oblations to them. The festival was celebrated
on February 21st, the end of the Roman year. Another pagan holiday from
Roman times which influenced Halloween was to honor Pomona, the Roman
goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the
incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition
of “bobbing” for apples, still sometimes practiced on Halloween.
In the 7th century Pope Boniface 4th introduced All Saints’ Day to
replace Feralia. It was observed on May 13th. Later, Gregory 3rd changed the
date to November 1st, the day it is still celebrated today. The Greek Orthodox
Church observes it on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
Another pagan contribution toHalloween is the ancientDruid fire festival
called Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”) celebrated by the Celts in Scotland,
Wales and Ireland. In Ireland the festival was known as Samhein, or La
Samon, the Feast of the Sun. In Scotland, the celebration was known as
Hallowe’en. InWelsh it’s Nos Galen-gaeof (theNight of theWinterCalends).
All Hallowtide came at the close of harvest and ushered in the winter
season, lasting till May. Fairys were imagined as particularly active at this
season. To commemorate the event,Druids built huge sacred bonfires,where
the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic
deities. During the celebration, costumes were worn, typically consisting of
animal heads and skins. Fortune telling was frequent, telling each participant
and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over,
they re-lit their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during
the coming winter.
By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands.
In the seventh century, Pope Boniface 4th designated November 1st All
Saints’ Day as a holiday to honor saints and martyrs. The Pope replaced the
Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday.
The American tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably dates back to the
early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens
would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes”
in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives.
Giving soul cakes to the poor was encouraged by the church as a way
to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits.
The practice referred to as going a-souling was often done by children who
visited houses in their neighborhood seeking gifts of ale, food and money.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European
and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and
frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid
of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry. On
Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world,
people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To
avoid being recognized by these ghosts, peoplewouldwearmasks when they
left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow
spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would
place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent
them from attempting to enter.
Evolution Of A Holiday
As European immigrants came to America, they broughtmany different
Halloween customs with them. Because of the rigid Protestant belief systems
in early New England, celebration of Halloween in colonial times was
Halloween celebrationsweremuchmore common, extravagant and outin-
the-open in Maryland and the southern colonies. As the beliefs and
customs of different European ethnic groups, aswell as theAmerican Indians,
meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The
first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the
harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s
fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the
telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the
nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween
was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with
new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially themillions of Irish fleeing
Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of
Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans
began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or
money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or
appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings,
In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into
a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers, than about
ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft.
At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults
became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on
games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged
by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or
“grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts,
Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the
beginning of the twentieth century.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but
community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the
featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and
communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many
communities during this time. Halloween had become an ever more
destructive way to ““let off steam”” for crowded and poor urban dwellers.
Before 1900, vandalism that had been limited to tipping outhouses;
removing gates, soaping windows and switching shop signs, but by the
1920’’s had become nasty — with real destruction of property and cruelty to
animals and people. Neighborhood committees and local city clubs such as
the Boy Scouts then mobilized to organize safe and fun alternatives to
vandalism. School posters of the time call for a ““Sane Halloween.”” Good
children were encouraged to go door to door and receive treats from homes
and shop owners, thereby keeping troublemakers away. By the 1930’’s, these
““beggar’’s nights””were enormously popular and being practiced nationwide,
with the ““trick or treat”” greeting wide-spread from the late 1930s.”
The Halloween begging activity known as trick-or-treat comes from
America in the 1930s, not the British Isles. The custom was intended to
control and displace disruptive pranks.
By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and
Halloween had evolved into a holiday directedmainly at the young. Due to the
high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved
from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could bemore
easily accommodated. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of
trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively
inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration.
In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing
the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was
born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated
$6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest
Pumpkins are fruits. A pumpkin is a type of squash and is a member of
the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae), which also includes squash, cucumbers,
gherkins, and melons. Pumpkins have been grown in North America for
thousands of years and are indigenous to the western hemisphere.
History Of The Jack-O’Lantern
Pumpkin carving is a popular part of modern America’s Halloween
celebration.Come October, pumpkins can be found everywhere in the country
from doorsteps to dinner tables. Despite the widespread carving that goes on
in this country every autumn, fewAmericans really know why or when the jack
o’lantern tradition began.
People have been making jack o’lanterns at Halloween for centuries.
The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy
Jack.” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink
with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he
convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their
drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into
his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing
back into his original form. Jack eventually freed theDevil, under the condition
that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he
would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into
climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack
carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come
down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such
an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had
played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not
allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning
coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has
been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this
ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of
Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing
them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other
wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from
these countries brought the jack o’lantern tradition with them when they came
to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, native to America,
make excellent jack o’lanterns.