Are you ready for Halloween? If you have young(ish) children, for most Americans, Halloween can be a big deal! In many parts of the country, Halloween is, if nothing else, a very celebratory and exciting day of the year. There are parties, events, trick or treating, and even the adults go “all-in,” with costumes at work, home decorations and plenty of adult parties.
Halloween means different things to different people in our country. For plenty of kids, it means a day of fun at school, typically wearing their costume, followed by perhaps a party or two, and then the Big Event, an hour or two of Trick or Treating! For some adults, both young and old, it is a night of paying homage to satan! Quite a departure from dressing up like a fairy or superman and filling a plastic pumpkin-bucket with Tootsie Rolls and gummy bears!
October 31 is Halloween or Halloween, which is an abbreviation of All-hallow-even. This translates into, the evening before All Hallows Day or All Saints Day, which falls on November 1st. Historically, after the Romans conquered the Celts in 43AD, they adopted many of the Celtic festivals and brought them into their own religious celebrations. “All Hallows Day,” was one of them. Originally the day celebrated numerous pagan festivals, but Pope Gregory III eventually designated November 1st to mark the Christian feast of “All Saints Day,” which was originally on May 13th. According to the Catholic Church, each day started at sunset, which is why celebrations typically started on October 31, the eve of the holiday, or, All Hallows Day.
Halloween’s Celtic Origins
One of the most moving pagan celebrations was Samhain (pronounced “Sow-en,”) a Celtic holiday, which signified the end of the harvest and the end of summer. Samhain is sometimes also considered the “Celtic New Year.” The Celts believed that this was the day when two worlds, the living and the dead, came together. Spirits were believed to be mischievous and caused trouble, sometimes damaging crops. So the Celts would leave food, gather together and set huge bonfires of burning crops, believing the light would drive away evil spirits. Sometimes they would light candles or carve lanterns out of vegetables, such as squash, to light the way for good spirits. In the Americas, those lanterns would be carved out of pumpkins, also known as Jack O’Lanterns. There are also some accounts of people making animal sacrifices to Celtic deities and even dressing in costumes made of animal hides to fool evil spirits. These days, Samhain is celebrated more like a harvest festival, but still uses many of the same rituals.
Halloween in the 1800s
As Europeans immigrated to America, they brought their rituals and customs with them. There are accounts of mostly southern colonists mixing their celebrations with Native American harvest celebrations and rituals. In the mid-1800s, nearly two million Irish immigrants, fleeing the potato famine, helped shape Halloween into an even more widely celebrated event. Scottish immigrants celebrated with fireworks, telling ghost stories, playing games and making mischief.
There were games such as bobbing for apples, dooking, which is the dropping of forks on apples without using hands, and Puccini, an Irish fortune-telling game using saucers. Young women were frequently told if they sat in dark rooms and gazed into a mirror, the face of their future husbands would appear, however, if a skull appeared, the poor girl would be destined to die before marriage.
The English observation of Guy Fawkes Day on November 5 had also become intertwined with Halloween. However, most pranks and mischief were the work of naughty children rather than spirits, as once believed.
By the 1900s, the focus had shifted from a religious holiday to a more communal celebration. “Guising” was a practice dating back to the middle ages, when the poor would go around, knocking on doors, asking for food or money, or both. Borrowing from the English and Irish traditions, children adopted the practice of “guising” and would dress up in costumes, however, there are only a few references to children actually going door to door asking for food or money during Halloween. Instead, parties were held and had a more festive atmosphere evolved with colorful costumes. The frightening and superstitious aspects of Halloween had diminished, and Halloween in America was slowly shedding some of the old European traditions, instead, adopting more light-hearted celebrations.
“Trick or Treat”
Despite the good nature of most people, Halloween pranks and mischief had become a huge problem in the 1920s and 1930s. This was due to the problem of pranks, which often turned into vandalism, property damage and even physical assaults. Bad kids and even organizations such as the KKK, used Halloween as a rationale to engage in criminal activity. This, despite the efforts of schools and communities best attempts to curb vandalism. They encouraged the “trick or treat” concept. The Boy Scouts got into the act by organizing safe events like school carnivals and local neighborhood trick or treat outings for children, hoping this would keep troublemakers away.
The Trick or Treat idea faced some controversy, however. Parents and community leaders would take a stance that Trick or Treat was practically extortion; either homes gave children “treats” or the families would be maliciously targeted with “tricks” for not complying. Mostly due to their efforts, by the late 30s, vandalism was decreasing as more and more children opted to partake in Trick or Treat and the majority proved to be more innocent, celebratory, kids.
The first print of the words “Trick or Treat” did not occur until 1934, in a Portland, Oregon newspaper. They ran an article about Halloween and the pranks that kept local police officers on their toes. There would be sporadic instances of the phrase “Trick or Treat” used in the media during the 1930s, eventually making its way onto Halloween cards. But the practice we see today with children dressed in wonderful costumes, going house to house saying “Trick or Treat” did not really arise until the mid-1940s.
Early Halloween Celebrations
Anoka, Minnesota, a.k.a the “Halloween Capital of the World,” was the first city in America to officially hold a Halloween celebration. They did so in an effort to divert kids from pulling pranks like tipping outhouses and letting cows loose to run around on Main Street. The town organized a parade and spent the weeks prior to planning and making costumes. They provided goodies, such as popcorn, peanuts, and candy to any and all children who participated in the parade which was followed by a huge bonfire in the town square. The event grew over time and has since been held every year since 1920 except 1942 and 1943 when festivities were canceled due to World War II.
These days Anoka, holds elaborate Halloween festivals with a parade, carnivals, costume contests, house decorating, and other community celebrations, living up to its self-proclaimed title of “Halloween Capital of the World.”
Salem, Massachusetts, associated mostly with witches due in part to its long and sometimes torrid history, also lays claim to the title. Many historians quietly back away from that debate, leaving the two cities to duke it out for themselves.
The popularity of Halloween has increased year after year. Television, movies, and other media outlets have helped Halloween grow into America’s second-largest commercial holiday, which brings in an estimated $6.9 billion dollars annually. Watching horror movies and visiting haunted attractions, real haunts or haunted theme parks is a popular modern way to celebrate the evening.
Just as it was in the colonial times, Halloween in America is a melting pot of everything that is Halloween. There is no correct way to celebrate the holiday. Overzealous religious and social organizations have unsuccessfully tried to squash the holiday by spreading lies or rumors hoping to tarnish the image of Halloween by associating it with evil.
The truth is there are many unsubstantiated reports and rare attacks on ordinary citizens in the way of kidnappings and killings for Satanic rituals. Most myths are created to simply prey on human fears, sometimes for fun and sometimes to railroad thoughts and beliefs to serve the purpose of a select few. However, razor blades have very rarely been found in apples, so be sure and check your child's baskets!
The biggest challenge facing today’s 38 million trick or treaters is staying safe in a world where criminal types use Halloween as an excuse to act for deviant behavior. Many school and local communities will organize trick or treating events in shopping malls, especially in neighborhoods where gang activity is prevalent.
Parent worries in even the safe neighborhoods have adopted this practice as well. It saves money in the long run and is safe for all those involved and is slowly becoming the preferred way to celebrate in these volatile times.
Some have argued that Halloween has lost its spiritual meaning due to all the corporate and media influences. In this technology-driven world, it’s important to remember that along with society, even holidays are subject to evolution.
No matter what people choose to do, no matter what cultural, spiritual or material way, as long as people celebrate in a safe and happy way, the spirit of Halloween in America will endure for ages. But isn’t it great to take a look back at history and learn how it all began?