Halloween: History and Traditions

Hallows Eve, known today as Halloween will be upon us in two days, traditionally celebrated on the night of October 31st, where children (of all ages) dress in costumes and attend Halloween parties, while the younger ones go door-to-door collecting, hopefully, treats and not tricks.
Halloween as a celebration of some sort can be found in parts of the Western world and places like the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Puerto Rico, and recently a boon in popularity in Australia and New Zealand.
Halloween, or Hallows Eve as it was originally called, originated among the Celtic tribes of Ireland, Britain and France as part of a Pagan Celtic harvest festival. Samhain, Irish, Scots, the Calan Gaeaf in Wales and other immigrants brought versions of the traditions to North America in the 19th century. Most other Western countries consider Halloween as part of the American pop culture in the late 20th century.

All Hallows’ Eve is the evening before All Hallows Day (All Saints Day) and in Ireland, the name Hallow Eve is the accepted name. The holiday was a day of religious festivities in various northern, which gave in to the Christian interpretation of Hallows Eve. Halloween is also called Pooky Night in some parts of Ireland, thought to be named after the pűca, a mischievous spirit.

Halloween is also associated with the occult and there are many ancient superstitions surrounding the event. Many European cultural traditions believe that it is the time of year when the spiritual world can make contact with the physical world and when magic is most potent. (See Catalan Mythology about Witches and Irish tales of the Sidhe.)
Halloween is popular in Ireland, a place filled with historic traditions, tales and superstitions, and where it is believed the idea originated as a festival. The Celtic tribes celebrated Hallows Eve (Halloween) as Samhain (End of Summer), which was an agricultural fire festival or feast when the dead revisited the mortal world, and large communal bonfires would be lit to keep away evil spirits. (See Celtic observation of Samhain). Even after Christianity took over Pagan religious practices in the 6th century, the Irish continued to practice the ancient pagan rites and incorporated it the Christian religion they accepted.
Pope Gregory IV standardized the date in the world of Christianity of All Saints’ Day (All Hallows Day) to November 1st and became standard in the Western Church in 835 AD. There isn’t any specific documentation that Pope Gregory purposefully selected this date to counteract the Samhain festival of the Pagan Celts, but scholars believe it was the underlying reason that eventually became known as Hallowe’en. The Celts didn’t seem to mind that All Saints’ Day was moved from April 20th to April 1st, but they continued to celebrate the festival of the dead in relationship to their traditional Samhain. Unfortunately there is little solid documentation of how Halloween was celebrated before the industrial era of Ireland. Historian Nicholas Rogers wrote:
It is not always easy to track the development of Halloween in Ireland and Scotland from the mid-seventeenth century, largely because one has to trace ritual practices from folkloric evidence that do not necessarily reflect how the holiday might have changed; these rituals may not be “authentic” or “timeless” examples of preindustrial times.
On Halloween night in present-day Ireland, adults and children dress up as creatures from the underworld as ghosts, ghouls, zombies, withes, goblins, et cetera; and light bonfires and even fireworks displays. The children walk around knocking on the doors of neighbors to get fruit, nuts and sweets for the Halloween festival. Salt was once sprinkled in the hair of the children to protect them against evil spirits as they went gathering the goodies. Houses are decorated by carving pumpkins or turnips into scary faces and other decorations. The traditional Halloween cake in Ireland is the barnbrack which is fruit bread. Every member of the family gets a slice of the bread. Inside each cake is a piece of rag, a coin and a ring. If you get the rag then your financial future may not be good, If you get the coin you can look forward to a prosperous year. If you get the ring it is a sign of impending romance and happiness.
Children in Ireland get off for a week-long break from school for Halloween and the last Monday in October is a public holiday even though it doesn’t fall on the same day as Halloween.
In the United Kingdom (Britain, Wales and Scotland) Hallowe’en is also celebrated and was portrayed in the Scottish poem Hallowe’en by Robert Burns. Scotland shares the Gaelic culture and language with ancient Ireland and has celebrated the festival of Samhain for centuries. Today adults in the UK often dress and go to fancy dress or costume parties at private homes, pubs and clubs on Hallowe’en night. Hallowe’en in Scotland is mostly for the children who go door-to-door (called guising) dressing up and obtaining various sorts of gifts. In some parts of Yorkshire, there is a festival called Mischief Night which is traditionally on the 4th of November. Children do tricks on adults from minor tricks to more serious ones like taking doors off their hinges and sometimes throwing the doors into ponds or just taking them away. In recent times these “tricks” have become acts of vandalism and have caused criminal damage including street fires and destruction of private property.
All over the United Kingdom children carve faces or some design into pumpkins and then place them on display in their windows to celebrate Hallowe’en. (See Jack-o’-lantern) Witch balls are also hung up in English homes, usually by the windows or the front/back door and it is said they glow when a witch passes by. Bobbing for apples at Hallowe’en parties is another English custom. Apples are put into a barrel that has been filled with water and an individual must catch an apple with their mouth without using their hands. Once an apple has been caught this way, the apple is peeled and the peelings dropped into the barrel of water to see if it would spell out a letter. Whatever the letter the peeling formed into would be the first initial of the participant’s true love. Other traditions include fireworks, telling ghost stories and playing games such as Hide n’ Seek. Door-to-door trick or treating is also a custom in UK.
In the United States, Canada and Mexico, Halloween is celebrated as well. Halloween did not become a holiday until the 19th century because of the Puritan tradition that even frowned on the traditional Christmas events observed before the 1800s. North American almanacs of the late 18th century and early 19th century do not mention Halloween in their list of holidays. It was the transatlantic migration of almost two million Irish during the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849) that brought the holiday and its customs to America. The Scottish immigrants brought their own version to Canada before 1870 and to the United States after 1870. When the holiday was observed in the 19th century in America, it was celebrated in three ways. Scottish-American and Irish-American folks held dinners and costume balls that celebrated their traditional heritage and sometimes recited Robert Burns’ poem Hallowe’en. Home parties would consist of bobbing for apples and other games and sometimes pranks and mischievous actions. Commercial exploitation of Halloween in America began in the 20th century. The earliest being in the form of Halloween postcards, which were popular between 1905 and 1915. Dennison Manufacturing Company published its first Halloween catalog in 1909 and the Beistle Company were the first to provide Halloween decorations that were mostly die-cut paper items. German manufacturers produced Halloween figurines that were exported to America between the two world wars.
There isn’t much documentation of when masking or costuming on Halloween first started in America before 1900. Mass-produced Halloween costumes did not appear in stores until the 1950s, when trick-or-treating became a permanent part of the holiday. Next to Christmas, Halloween has become profitable for retailers. Yard decorations became popular in the 1990s and many manufacturers produce these today. Before this most decorations were homemade, and still are today. Halloween is not just marketed to children, but adults as well. Often parents or one parent will accompany children on their trick-or-treat outing dressed up in costume just like their children. It is an event for all ages. According to the National Retail Federation, the most popular Halloween costumes for adults are: witch, pirate, vampire, cat, or clown. Halloween parties are still popular today, especially on college campuses.
Anoka, Minnesota boasts to be the Halloween Capital of the World and celebrates the even with a big civic parade. Salem, Massachusetts, also claims this title because of its history concerning witches during the era of the persecution of witches in the American colonial period. Salem has a large amount of tourist activities surrounding the infamous Salem witch trials, especially around Halloween. Pumpkin Festivals can be found in New England the northeastern portions of the United States. Here on the Door Peninsula, Wisconsin, pumpkin festivals and Halloween is popular because of the deep European history of the state. But the largest celebration is in New York City as The Village Halloween Parade. It was started by a Greenwich Village mask maker in 1973 and the parade attracts over two million spectators and participants each year with about 4 million television viewers as well. The annual parade is held at night. In areas of America where a large Mexican immigrant population can be found, Halloween is merged with Mexico’s celebration called Dia De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
Black and orange are the traditional colors of Halloween, as well as purple, green and red. The colors also represent symbolism: Red = blood, fire, devil; Green = goblins and monsters; Purple = night, supernatural, mysticism; Orange = pumpkins, jack o’ lanterns, autumn, turning of the leaves; and Black = death, night, witches, black cats, bats, and vampires.
Telling of ghost stories and watching horror films has become a tradition around Halloween, and often the film industry will release such films around the holiday. Television stations and cable/satellite channels often program Halloween type films, and sometimes a marathon of horror genre films or TV series such as The Munsters or the Addams Family.
Here in Door County there is a corn maze filled with horrors and trick events featuring costumed performers, as well as haunted houses for visitors to get thrills in the . The largest of these Halloween themed events in America is at Knott’s Scary Farm in California.
Traditionally Candy Apples were passed out to children, along with homemade cookies, along with commercial candies. But in recent times sick individuals would place dangerous items in these homemade foods, like razor blades in one incident, or poison. While these incidents have been rare, people are encouraged to only pass out commercially wrapped candy items and that parents monitor their children’s trick-or-treat bags, sacks and containers when they get back home for obvious safety reasons.
Today, the majority of Christians do not hold any significance of Halloween to their religion, and because the Christian and Pagan traditions along with the theme of evil and supernatural, has caused some Christians to disapprove of the holiday or they have mixed feelings about it. Certain evangelical Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, conservative Jews and Muslims strongly protest the holiday and refuse to allow their children to participate. It is mostly because of the Satanic imagery and its seemingly celebration of evil in various forms. Today, many costumes are not in the theme of horrific creatures, but instead folk heroes or characters from films and other non-Satanic costumes – probably so children can participate in Halloween without becoming a part of the “Satanic” theme.
Some Christians, especially Roman Catholics, connect the holiday with All Saints Day and the fall festival or harvest theme, which is also an alternative to Halloween celebrations. Even Friar Gabriele Amorth, senior exorcist of Vatican City, stated in an interview with the London Sunday Telegraph:
… if … children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that.
Some members of the Wiccan religion find Halloween offensive because of the stereotyping of the witch character. Others feel it is a commercialized mockery of the original Samhain observances.
Sources and Further Reading:
The Book of Hallowe’en by Ruth Edna Kelley.
The National Retail Federation – 2006 Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, Washington, DC.
Halloween, All Saints and All Souls; American Catholic organization.
The Devil is Gaining Ground, Gyles Brandeth, The Sunday Telegraph, October 26th, 2006.
U.S. Census – facts about Halloween in the United States.