Holiday History: Halloween traditions

Halloween pumpkin

Halloween has come a long way since it was first celebrated. Many Americans partake in trick-or-treating but may not know the roots of the tradition.   

Last year, Mainstreet’s Tim Price wrote about the origins of All Saints’ Day, which would become Halloween. All Saints’ Day was mixed with the pagan, Celtic tradition of Samhain.

During Samhain, ancient Celts believed that between the dates of October 31st and November 1st the spiritual and the material worlds were merged. They would burn a large bonfire and each tribe member would take home a part of the communal fire to light the hearth. Ancient Celts would also dress up as monsters or animals to scare off fairies from taking the souls of their ancestors. 

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In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV merged the holiday of Samhain with All Saints’ Day and made the holiday about celebrating the dead saints and martyrs of the Christian faith. 

In Ireland and England, the tradition of trick-or-treating began in the Middle Ages. Peasants would go to wealthier families’ homes in a tradition called “Souling.” In exchange for praying for the deceased family members of the wealthy, they would receive soul cakes, which are a cookie with dried fruit. They believed that whenever a soul cake was eaten, a soul was released from purgatory. 

The tradition of “Souling” was eventually taken up by children who went from house to house asking for gifts such as food, ale, or money. 

Halloween was not initially celebrated widely in America because it was a Catholic holiday, and Protestantism was more prevalent. It was not until the Irish Potato Famine that started in 1845 and the mass immigration of the Irish to America that Halloween was popularized in the United States. 

Many Irish immigrants implemented their celebrations and traditions. One of these traditions was pranking. Typical pranks during the 18th century included uprooting vegetables, placing wagons on roofs and tipping over outhouses. However, Halloween pranks grew more violent, and by the 20th century, they were often marked by vandalism or assaults. 

Halloween became such a violent holiday that many cities were calling for its ban by 1933. To try to keep children out of trouble, civic and religious committees organized festivals, parades, and parties. 

One of the arrangements was for children to walk house to house. Each house would host a small “party,” and the children would receive something. During the 1950s, costumes became more prevalent due to mass production. Costumes such as princesses, clowns and mummies were extremely popular. 

Trick-or-treating was also becoming extremely popular. Homes were still giving out cookies, pieces of cake, nuts, or coins. Eventually, it morphed into what we now know as modern-day trick-or-treating. 

Candy makers in the 1950s began to advertise candy as a suitable option to pass out on Halloween. But it was not until the 1970s that candy became a popular option to give to trick-or-treaters. The individually sealed wrappers with a recognizable name became a sign that the treat had not been tampered with, which had become a concern for parents. 

According to Statista, last year 69% of Americans celebrated Halloween—the most participation since 2018 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans are expected to spend some $10 billion on Halloween this year. 

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