Tricks, Treats, & Traditions: The Origins of Halloween

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When you really think about it, Halloween is downright bizarre. We dress up in strange outfits and encourage our children to beg for candy from strangers. We carve faces into pumpkins, and scare ourselves—on purpose! 

What is the meaning of all this??

Like many modern holidays, present-day Halloween is an amalgamation of old festivals and rituals that were borrowed, tweaked, and combined into the traditions we know today. Find out where it all began, and how it evolved into today’s fun—but odd—celebration.

The Origins of Halloween

The Ancient Celts

The earliest origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celts and the festival of Samhain. Marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the new year (November 1st), Samhain was the day when the separation between the worlds of the living and the dead disappeared. This meant that ghosts could return to cause trouble, like damaging crops. 

The Druids (Celtic priests) lit huge bonfires on Samhain, where they burnt offerings of crops and sacrificed animals to appease the gods. Celts would disguise themselves with animal masks to confuse the spirits.

The Ancient Romans

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had invaded and conquered most of the Celtic lands. They ruled for over 400 years, during which time there was a blending of both Roman and Celtic traditions. The Romans celebrated Feralia in late October, a festival to honor the passing of the dead. Over the centuries, aspects of the Feralia and Samhain celebrations merged into one. 

All Saints’ Day

After the fall of the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity, this pagan festival was co-opted and changed yet again. In 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV created All Martyrs Day as a holiday to honor all Christian martyrs who didn’t have their own dedicated holiday. It was later expanded to include all saints and was renamed All Saints’ Day. The date of the celebration? November 1st. 

A few centuries later, a second holiday was added to the calendar on November 2nd. All Souls Day was intended to honor the dead. Much like the traditional Samhain, it featured a large bonfire and dressing up in costumes, but now they were saints, angels, and demons. Many historians believe that All Souls Day was intended to supplant the pagan ritual that was still celebrated in many areas. Sort of an “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” idea—oh, and pretend it was your idea in the first place.

All Saints’ Day was eventually referred to as All Hallows (or All Holy). And the day before (October 31st) was All Hallows Eve—shortened to Halloween over the centuries.

Modern Halloween

All Hallows Eve spread throughout most of Europe, with a particular concentration in the Catholic areas. It was brought to America by early settlers and grew in popularity through the middle of the 19th century.

Over the years, the religious significance of the holiday was diminished, and Halloween instead became a family and community holiday focused on children. But the supernatural elements have remained, with Halloween the perfect time to swap ghost stories and give ourselves a good-natured fright.

Why do we carve Jack o’ Lanterns?

The Jack o’ Lantern was an Irish tradition that immigrants brought to America in the 19th century. An old Irish folk tale told the story of Stingy Jack, a miserly fellow who invited the devil himself to have a drink with him. When the bar tab came, Jack told the devil to turn himself into a coin, so Jack could use it to pay. But instead of paying, he kept the coin and put it in his pocket next to a cross which prevented the devil from transforming back into himself.

Eventually, Jack allowed the devil to return to his original form, but only on the condition that if Jack died, the devil wouldn’t take his soul. Jack did die eventually, of course. But he was not welcomed into heaven, and the devil had agreed not to take his soul to hell. So Jack is doomed to wander the earth forever, lit by a single coal. He carries that coal inside a hollowed-out turnip, which led to the name “Jack of the Lantern.” 

To keep Jack and other wicked spirits at bay, the Irish began to carve faces into their own turnips and leave them in their windows at night. When the Irish emigrated to America, they brought the tradition along. But they soon found that pumpkins made the perfect vessels for their spooky carvings!

Why do we Trick or Treat?

During All Souls Day celebrations in the Middle Ages, the poor (dressed in their garb of saints and angels) would wander from house to house, offering songs and prayers for the dead in exchange for food or money. 

But the tradition disappeared for centuries until it was revived in the early 20th century. References to “trick or treat” began to reappear in the 1920s and 1930s. The “tricks” often took the form of vandalism on Halloween night. So communities encouraged Halloween parties and handing out candy to keep youths occupied in more acceptable behavior.

Why do we wear costumes?

As we saw above, the history of costumes dates all the way back to Samhain and the ancient Celts, who tried to trick ghosts and spirits into leaving them alone. These costumes became religious after the spread of Christianity and the rise of All Saints Day. In the early 19th and early 20th centuries, costumes were made from what was on hand, like sheets, makeup, and homemade masks. The effect was often downright creepy! 

In the 1930s, costumes inspired by pop culture began to gain popularity, with famous characters like Popeye and Little Orphan Annie created in costume form. After World War II, there was an explosion of mass-produced costumes. And in the 1960s, masks fell in popularity as costumes became a form of self-expression, rather than a way to conceal one’s identity. 

Today, you’re more likely to see a Wonder Woman, Harley Quin, or Spider-Man than a scary ghost on your doorstep. But it all originates back to the ancient Celts and the end of the summer season.

Spend Halloween Weekend at the Pumpkin Patch!

Barton Hill Farms’ Fall Festival, Pumpkin Patch, & Corn Maze will be open from 10 am – 6 pm on Saturday, October 30th and Sunday, October 31st. Wear your costume our to the farm and get a little extra use out of it!

Reserve your tickets

Sources: 

Halloween’s 2,000 Year Old History

History of Halloween

The History of Halloween and Costume Wearing 

How Jack O’Lanterns Originated in Irish Myth

The History of Trick-or-Treating is Weirder Than You Thought 

History of Halloween Costumes