Many attitudes toward Halloween prevail. Some regard it as a kids-only excuse to play dress-up and binge on sweets, and some regard it as devil worshipping – ignorant or intentional – that’s become socially acceptable. Growing up, all I knew was, it was the only time of year when creativity shined brighter than the sun.
Halloween offered me ample opportunities for parties and candy, yes. But it also offered something I found infinitely more exciting: pageantry. And that was something no other holiday involved. For an entire day, everyone got to be anyone they wanted to be, and you could look however you wanted to look. Plus, Halloween seemed to turn all the normal kids into hyper-imaginative weirdos like me, so it gave me a sense of camaraderie I otherwise never had. It was as if our collective energy allowed an alternate reality to materialize, and my only job was to enjoy it.
That is why Halloween has always been my favorite holiday.
But how did a holiday celebrated by sun worshippers in 1000 B.C., in a place over 5,000 miles away, end up mattering so much to a Protestant-raised kid in 1990s Los Angeles anyhow?
Ancient Holidays That Left Their Marks
Samhain (pronounced SOW-in), which means “November” in Gaelic, was celebrated by the Celts the night before November 1 as the Feast of the Dying Sun. Their concept of time was pastoral, not agricultural, so it didn’t involve the sowing-and-reaping milestones of solstices and equinoxes. Instead, the Celts’ new year began when they brought their herds into the fold at the approach of winter. Being sun worshippers, they lamented the sun’s departure into winter’s deathly grip, and by extension, they regarded that night as a time when death itself was more pervasive. To honor the sun, they used his closest likeness, enormous bonfires. These, they hoped, would also convince the sun to return after his six-month absence.
In ancient Rome, the goddess of fruit, Pomona, was honored annually around November 1. When the Romans conquered Europe in 50 B.C., they brought this holiday and its traditions into the lands of the Celts. Rituals centered on things like apples and nuts then became a regular part of Samhain.
Another Roman holiday, Lemuria took place on May 13 and honored the dead. In A.D. 609, the Catholic Church took over this holiday by renaming it All Saints Day (aka All Hallows Day), in an effort to convert pagans into Christians. This strategy proved so effective that it was later deployed against Samhain by moving All Saints Day from May 13 to November 1 in A.D. 835. Its focus on death aligned well with facets of Samhain, and people who still celebrated Samhain at heart were left alone if they referred to it as “All Hallows Eve.”
From Europe to North America
Protestant settlers in colonial America opposed Halloween because it was both too pagan due to its Samhain roots and too Catholic due to honoring saints – something Protestants rejected. Only in places where there were large Anglican/Catholic populations, primarily in the southern colonies, did Halloween flourish. In fact, the earliest documented Halloween parties and games in the colonies took place in Virginia. Later waves of immigration to America brought large populations of descendants of the Celts, particularly Irish and Scottish immigrants. With them came Celtic traditions, as well as the All Saints Day beliefs superimposed on those traditions.
Halloween celebrations in the U.S. died down during major periods of turmoil, such as the Great Depression, World War I and World War II. During those times, the country focused on more serious matters, leaving frivolities like Halloween on the backburner. After the U.S. emerged a superpower following World War II though, prosperity and the Baby Boom led to lavish Halloween parties and other activities aimed at busying kids. Decades later, pop culture showed that it had adopted the holiday by featuring it in TV shows and movies, most notably, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966) and “Halloween” (1978).
Mischief and Mayhem
The Celts believed that fairies and other troublemaking supernatural creatures would roam the earth on Samhain. So, there was a general expectation that devious behavior would abound. Also, since it was the first night of enjoying the harvest, many people got very drunk and acted out while inebriated.
The impulse to be totally uninhibited is one of the timeless aspects of Halloween. Even today, the holiday is widely regarded as granting a license to do things you normally couldn’t get away with. You get a pass to wear lingerie in public (the sexy fill-in-the-blank costumes), for example. And no one calls the cops on you if they see severed, bloody limbs strewn across your front yard. We all have a deeply engrained need to free ourselves; the evidence is ample. And that need sustains our demand for the liberty that Halloween has freely supplied for millennia.
In Celtic times, disguises were used as a safety device. With the dead roaming around on Samhain night, the living couldn’t risk being recognized by any spirits. Many of the ones that returned, it was believed, had bad intentions – especially if there was unfinished business with the living. But elaborate outfits and masks weren’t deemed necessary; merely turning your coat inside out sufficed.
In the U.S., masks were first used to hide the identities of the people wreaking havoc through Halloween pranks. This was particularly important to people engaging in very dangerous activities, such as starting fires, or destructive ones like breaking windows. Only when companies realized the potential money to be made off of Halloween did costumes become more of a big deal. Dennison’s was the first to exploit Halloween fever, followed by Sears and a multitude of candy companies. Today, Americans spend more money on Halloween than on any holiday other than Christmas.
Door-to-Door Begging Traditions
The earliest parallel of modern trick-or-treating was the product of the Catholic Church’s appropriation of Samhain. When changing Samhain’s name to All Saints Day (aka All Hallows Day), the Church also put a new spin on Celtic rituals. Among these, the Church replaced Samhain bonfires with flames on candles lit to guide souls out of Purgatory. Souls would only be set free from Purgatory if enough people prayed for them, so kids would trade prayers for “soul cakes” (desserts). They went door to door, offering to pray for anyone each family had lost.
In 1920s U.S. though, trick-or-treating emerged for a purpose closer to the Celtic tradition of leaving out sweets for the dead. The Celts left food out to buy off the ghosts so that they’d leave the living alone. In like manner, people in the U.S. started handing out candy to buy off the pranksters, offering them the deal of getting a treat if they didn’t play any tricks. Given how violent kids’ tricks could be, “Trick or treat!” was once a rather serious ultimatum. But the candy ploy proved successful, and treats tamed the tricksters, so the tradition was adopted country-wide.
The association of bats with Halloween goes back to the bonfires lighted for Samhain. During an era without electricity, outdoor fires would likely have been the only time bats were seen. The bright lights attracted bats’ primary prey, insects. So, they were always around during Samhain, and that association stuck.
Witches, Brooms and Cauldrons
The earliest concept of our modern interpretation of witches was the winter goddess the Celts believed kidnapped the sun for six months, Cailleach. She was a creature of destruction, and she was what kept plants from growing all winter. When the Catholic Church took over pagan culture, those who still worshipped the winter goddess were often also healers, and the Church considered their practices sorcery. The Old English verb for practicing sorcery was “wiccian,”and practitioners (male and female, although the focus was on women) came to be called “witches.”
Pope Innocent III linked witchcraft to the devil, and then outlawed all Celtic religions. This set the stage for the witch hunts that ensued, as witches became viewed as the devil’s handmaidens. (Considering that powerful women had no place in the Catholic patriarchy, one might speculate that there were other reasons to oppose female witches as well.) Owing to the fierce hatred of witches, people who pursued them ascribed evil qualities to everyday household items, including brooms and cauldrons. These were demonized by association, even though witch-free households also swept floors and cooked meals (the primary use of the cauldron). Cats, too, enigmatic and nocturnal by nature, came to be viewed as witches in animal form in the midst of the witch panic. And for their connection to witches, cats became a Halloween icon along the way.
The name “jack-o’-lantern” comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. (Read the full story here.) When this tradition first took hold, the lanterns were made of turnips and resembled ghostly, shrunken skulls. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to the U.S., and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities. As pumpkins were part of the October harvest in the U.S. though, they were a readily identifiable substitute for the turnips. They were larger, softer and easier to carve, and pumpkin carving became a family activity.
Halloween 2020 in the U.S.
Many of the traditions from Stone Age Ireland have withstood the test of not only time but also persecution. Odds are, they’ll withstand the test of COVID-19 too. Even if haunted houses and trick-or-treating are prohibited in parts of the country, the aforementioned need for Halloween’s willingness to set us free for a night won’t just go away. Nor will the wildly successful commercialization of Halloween, as things from movies to pumpkin-spice treats can all be enjoyed while maintaining social distancing. So, in spite of everything we’re up against this year, I say with utter sincerity, have a happy Halloween!
- “How JackO’Lanterns Originated in Irish Myth,” https://www.history.com/news/history-of-the-jack-o-lantern-irish-origins.
- MagellanTV, “Halloween: Feast of the Dying Sun,” 2010.
- Ruth Edna Kelley, “The Book of Hallowe’en,” 1919.
- The History Channel, “History of the Holidays,” Episode 1, “The Haunted History of Halloween,” and Episode 6, “The Real Story of Halloween,” 2008.
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice– over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.