Halloween History Lesson

  • October 29, 2013
  • Jenna Maxwell

We all love Halloween…obviously!  What’s not to love about this beloved and traditional holiday that is filled to the brim with costumes, parties, trick or treating and a whole plethora of other scary and fun stuff?  Have you ever wondered, however, who came up with all these rather bizarre traditions that we embrace at this time each year?  What’s up with all the scary monsters anyway?  And why do kids knock on doors, begging for candy?  What do we even mean by trick or treat?  For all you folks that just need to know, today’s post is going to be a little Halloween history lesson.

To get to the roots of Halloween tradition you have to go back into history thousands and thousands of years to the time of the ancient Celtic people then living in Europe.  Pagan people that lived during this pre-Christianity time period had many gods and goddesses that they worshipped, many of these entities being associated with the harvest.  A festival known as Samhain was celebrated each year at the end of the harvest season in order to pay due homage to the gods and goddesses that were responsible for their harvested bounty.  During Samhain, many interesting rituals took place amongst these groups of people.  Celebratory bonfires were held with various offerings and sacrifices to the gods they worshipped also taking place.  Great feasting and celebrating was also a common practice as was dressing up in scary costumes, but their reasons for the costumes might strike you as a little bit odd.  These superstitious people of old believed that during the close of the harvest season and at the dawn of the winter months, the spirits of the dead could come back to the earth to wander around amongst the living.  Samhain became not only a festival celebrating the end of the harvest season, but it was also a time to honor the deceased who were believed to be closer to them than ever during the time of Samhain. 

In spite of Samhain being a designated time to remember and honor the dead, there was a great deal of fear and misgivings about the notion of having spirits coming back into the world of the living.  The people were very fearful of any spirits that might actually be evil or had malevolent intentions.  In order to scare off any evil spirits and keep them away, folks took to dressing up in frightening and scary looking costumes.  These people believed that if they themselves looked like one of the dead guys, any spirits lurking about would just leave them alone.  Dressing up in scary costumes became an annual event, and in the process a very long-standing Halloween tradition was born.

As the years went on, Samhain and its festivities became melded into All Saints Day and other holidays that were now celebrated as part of newly taught Christianity.  Many of these ancient traditions and customs came with immigrants when they migrated to the United States.  One of these traditions was a very old ritual known as souling.  In the old country, on the evening before All Saints Day, it had become customary for poorer folks to go to the doors of wealthier folks in order to offer prayers on behalf of their dead.  In return for these prayers, the wealthy would offer up small pastries to the poor known as soul cakes.  It is believed that this tradition was the very beginnings of what we now know as trick or treating. 

In the early days of the 20th century, after the tradition of souling was re-kindled in the United States by groups of new immigrants, things did not go so well.  In fact, things got so out of hand that Halloween had become a time of profuse vandalism and completely disruptive mayhem in many cities throughout America.  The phrase “trick or treat” was likely started during this time period as kids who went out trick or treating actually would damage a homeowner’s property or perform other acts of extreme mischief if they weren’t “treated” properly or to their expectations. 

With the advent of WWII and the sugar rationing that became necessary during this time in history, trick or treating fell out of vogue and became basically extinct.  When the tradition of trick or treating was rekindled in the 1950’s, the ritual was reinstituted to the new generation as a fun, kinder and gentler activity with a much more family friendly vibe.  Thankfully, the holiday of Halloween has remained a fun holiday for families to enjoy together for many decades and through many subsequent generations. 

Although the Halloween we celebrate today is a far cry from the ancient festivals that were once revered in the old days, it’s interesting to note how much of those ancient commemorations we have retained in our modern day.  As you wander down the street on Halloween night seeing your neighborhood filled with ghosts, goblins and the like, you may want to ponder a bit on where some of these old traditions came from.