Now several years ago working at a college I won’t name I had several of my Christian student raise a stink over the fact that we were celebrating Halloween by decorating the office. Their main objection was that we were celebrating a Satanic Holiday. I disallowed their complaint and did a quick history lesson with them about Halloween. So here in a little more detail with a few links are, as best as I can figure out, the origins of Halloween.
First the date is essentially another co-opted Celtic Pagan holiday that Christians took over. Early Christians very smartly incorporated their traditions onto Pagan holiday dates, also often incorporating some of the traditions as well as a way to more easily gain Christian converts. It worked, there are a lot more Christians than Pagans running around these days. The holiday the Christians stole was Samhain which was a harvest festival that was also rumored to be a time when the past, the spirit world and the present often co-mingled. A link to the history of Samhain is below:
There is an even tighter connection to Christianity and Halloween thanks to early Christians, most religions and cultures have a day where they celebrate the dead. Another Pagan festival Lemuria a time in which the Pagans drove the unwanted spirits from their homes occurred on May 13 which the Christians co-opted it in the 7th century to be All Saints Day, you can read more about Lemuria below:
Then to try to drain the strength out of the Samhain holiday the church moved All Saints Day to November 1st and it became known as All Hallows Day, thus turning the evening of Samhain into All Hallows Evening and eventually shortened to Halloween. So this is the origin of the name of Halloween and how the holiday kept it’s connection to the dead. Priests also asked the faithful to pray for souls in Purgatory during this time, so on Halloween, poor children would beg door to door for soul cakes, and in return they would pray for souls in Purgatory. Sounds a lot like trick or treat.
So where do our iconic Halloween images come from? Witches are an easy one as this comes from the witch scares, particularly in the 1600s. The things associated with their homes make up the cliché witch, the hat was what a country woman’s hat looked like in 17th century Europe, cauldron’s were fireplace cook pots and brooms of course were part of the household. Finally cats, well heck, single outcast women living alone always have cats, even today.
The rowdy and masked elements of the holiday most likely come from rowdy All Hallows Eve beggars who drank ale as they went door to door and as the night wore on got more demanding and caused trouble, masks helped retain their anonymity. Guy Fawkes lent some help to the mask bit as his November 5th attempt to blow up parliament was celebrated each year with masks and fires.
As immigrants came to the new world they brought snippets of their individual traditions around this holiday to the new world and they were incorporated into Halloween celebrations. At the time of the Civil War, the massive amount of death as well as people lost, not knowing if they were dead or alive led to many ghost stories related to the missing and dead from the war. Add into this mix the Bogey, brought by Scots from their lore and legend and now we get the Bogey or Boogeyman. The Jack O’Lantern mythology comes from Europe as well and transforms from kids hollowing out turnips in Europe and uses what was more at hand in the US, pumpkins which are harvested the same time of year. A link to some of the legends and history of the Jack O’Lantern is below.
Additionally Scots and Irish immigrants also brought the begging and rowdy prank filled Halloween celebrations of the old country with them.
The turn of the twentieth century saw artists starting to use the images of fear, ghosts, skeletons, witches and devils. All which drew from the images of death, ghosts wrapped in their death shroud, pumpkins carved to resemble the rigor mortis smile and triangle nose area of a corpse. This really finalized the look of Halloween that we still have today.
Halloween has also at times gotten out of hand with pranks that derailed street cars, release livestock, and as most of us aware even continues to this day in places like Detroit where hundreds of fires often occur over the three night period referred to as devil’s night, a link covering the history of devil’s night is below:
As a response to the vandalism and rowdiness of Halloween cities began looking for ways to distract and engage kids on Halloween. So up came Halloween parties, costume contests, parades and bobbing for apples lots of the Halloween standards we all know. Finally, in the early 20th century people began doing open houses where they gave away treats to keep from getting pranked on Halloween and thus the phrase and the tradition of “Trick or Treat” was born.