Halloween has become one of the most beloved, and certainly spookiest, of all holidays in North America. Although Halloween technically traces its roots back two thousand years, its current incarnation as a costumed event filled with candy, horror movies, and haunted houses is relatively new. This paper will inform readers about the history and meaning of Halloween traditions, showing how they evolved over time. Halloween represents the blend between the ancient and the modern, just as it signifies the blurring of the lines between the dead and the living.
Originally called Samhain, Halloween started as a Celtic, pre-Christian, pagan festival held around October 31 or November 1 each year to commemorate the end of the autumnal harvest (Radford 1). The tradition evolved in a geographic region with a stark change of seasons and a dark, long winter, and so the end of the harvest season would have been a challenging time for the people of the ancient British Isles. When Samhain traditions began two thousand years ago, there was little in the way of advanced technologies that could have promoted food security throughout the winter. The people lived off the land using subsistence agriculture. When fall turned to winter around the same time each year, farmers had to gather whatever crops were still left in the field, bring the animals to shelter through the winter, and prepare for months of darkness and meager supplies (Radford 1). The symbols used in modern Halloween celebrations such as the carved pumpkin are remnants of the connection to the holidays ancient roots as a seasonal, . The transition between autumn and winter was therefore a dark and scary time for the ancients, perhaps leading to the belief that this was also when the lines between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred (Radford 1). The earth shifted from being life-giving to being barren for months, providing the people with an opportunity to consider what happens when the human body passes away and the soul moves on. Therefore, Halloween has long been a holiday that merges an agricultural celebration with a supernatural one.
While the pumpkin imagery links modern Halloween with the agricultural festival, the imagery of ghouls, ghosts, and supernatural creatures shows how the holiday has always been about death and other deeply rooted human fears. Some historians believe that Samhain was about communicating with the dead, and others believe it was about scaring away the ghosts and spirits that might haunt the earth and its living creatures (The History of Halloween: How It All Started, 1). As Christianity encroached on Ireland and the British Isles, it became necessary to merge ancient pagan Celtic traditions with the myths and holidays of the new religion in order to ensure conformity and social control (Cain 1). To allow the people to continue practicing their age-old traditions, Christian leaders like Pope Gregory IV made Hallowmas or All Hallows Daylater called Halloween–a formal holiday in 837 (Cain 1). Prior to Pope Gregorys degree, All Saints Day was actually a springtime holiday (Cain 1). Switching All Saints Day to November 1 allowed the Pope to effectively blend the pagan traditions with the Christian ones. Thus, All Saints Day was the Christian part of the holidaythe day on which the hallowedthe holywere to be commemorated on November 1. The night prior to All Hallows Day was therefore All Hallows Eve and the time during which the people could give expression to their fears about death and the unknown. Modern Halloween traditions capitalize mainly on the pagan elements of the holiday, focusing on frightening imagery.
Modern motifs of Halloween include the Jack OLantern and the Haunted House. Both of these elements evolved over time, but the Jack OLantern is the older of the two. The Jack OLantern is the ultimate symbol of Halloween, as it takes the harvest festival motif of the pumpkin and transforms that into a fearful figure from Irish folk history (Cain 1). On the other hand, the Haunted House is a newer component of Halloween traditions. According to Smithsonian.com, the Haunted House dates back only to 19th century London (1). During the nineteenth century and the Romantic era, gothic horror literature blossomed along with a renewed interest in spiritualism and the occult. The rush of Irish immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century raised the popularity of Halloween, (The History of Halloween: How it All Started, 1). Whereas Halloween remained a relatively minor event in its homeland, it flourished and became a massive and lucrative industry in the New World. Major players like Disney, and Hollywood movies turned Halloween from a minor Celtic and minor Christian event into a mass marketed popular culture tradition, which it remains today.
Dressing up in costumes is another major part of the modern Halloween traditions. The tradition of dressing up in costume does seem to stem back to the original Samhain festival in British and Irish territories (Radford 1). In the early days of Halloween, the poor would go door to door dressed in costume on the night prior to All Saints Day, sometimes putting on skits or performance art plays (Radford 1). These early traditions continued throughout the Middle Ages, when the poor would ask for food in exchange for prayers for the dead, a precursor to the modern practice of trick-or-treating (Radford 1). During the Middle Ages, the act of going door to door dressed up and putting on plays was known as souling, (Cain 1). Souling morphed into what is now the trick or treat ritual that takes place every year on the night of Halloween. For example, in the nineteenth century, as Irish immigrants brought their Halloween traditions with them from the Old World, playing practical jokes, pranks, or tricks supplanted the older tradition of asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead (Radford 1). Tricks were sometimes disruptive and included acts of vandalism, which continue to be problems with children doing things like throwing eggs or toilet paper on houses (Radford 1). In fact, trick or treating was sometimes viewed as a form of extortion, (Cain 1). The as it is practiced today, with children going door to door, did not start until World War II: making this one of the newest additions to the collection of Halloween rituals now so common as to be taken for granted (Radford 1).
Halloween is therefore a mishmash of ancient and modern, of pagan and Christian, of lightheartedness and fear. Now largely considered to be a secular holiday offering fun for both children and adults, Halloween has become highly commercialized and at risk for losing its soul. However, a core of integrity remains in this significant holiday, as dedicated denizens of the world of the dead ply the streets, and haunt the houses. The holiday has veered between two poles, not just between the living and the dead but also between good and evil. Even though the holiday was effectively co-opted by Christianity in the ninth century, it has sometimes been portrayed as an evil pagan tradition that welcomes the devil (Radford 1). My opinion about Halloween is that it is fun, and offers something for everyone. Young children continue to enjoy Halloween because of the opportunity to dress in fun costumes, get together with friends and family, and seek free candy from strangers. Adults enjoy dressing up too, going to parties, and scaring themselves silly by visiting haunted houses or watching scary movies. While Halloween does remain primarily a North American, and to a lesser degree a British, holiday, there are many meaningful counterparts to the festival such as the Day of the Dead celebrations that take place in some parts of Mexico. These festivals show that Christianity has been instrumental in spreading traditions through the process of globalization, just as the commercial enterprises of Disney have. My recommendation is to learn more about the history of Halloween before taking the holiday for granted ever again.
Cain, Aine. The dark history behind Halloween is even more chilling than you realized. Business Insider, Oct 31, 2017. https://www.businessinsider.
The History of Halloween – how it all started. BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/15169373
Radford, Benjamin. History of Halloween. Live Science, 18 Sept, 2017. https://www.livescience..html
Smithsonian.com. Taking delight in a fright: how haunted houses came about. Newsela. Oct 23, 2016. https://newsela.com/read/smi-history-haunted-house/id/22933/