Feel that spine-tingling chill in the air? Of all the holidays, Halloween has the most zealous fans, and for them, this is the most wonderful time of the year and it’s not even close. Ghouls, goblins and goodies – MUAHAHAHA! It’s all fun and games, but how many of us know the stories behind the day steeped in ancient Celtic tradition? So, we thought it’d be a spooky good time to unmask the monster and explore some of our favorite Halloween habits, like why we dress up in costumes and beg for candy, prank and party with our neighbors, and get our rocks off carving jack-o-lanterns.
With origins that date back more than 2,000 years, Halloween has its roots in the ancient, pagan festival of Samhain, celebrated on the night of Oct. 31. The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, believed that the barriers between the spirit and the physical worlds disappeared and the dead returned to earth on Samhain. People would gather to light bonfires, offer sacrifices and pay homage to the deceased. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated Nov. 1 as a time to honor all saints, and soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.
The origins are murky, but modern-day trick-or-treating is possibly steeped in traditions from early Roman Catholic holidays, medieval practices, British politics and ancient Celtic festivals. In later centuries, people began dressing as ghosts, demons and other malevolent creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. No one knows quite where and when the phrase “trick-or-treat” was coined, but the custom has been popular in the U.S. and in other countries for about 100 years and was firmly woven into American tradition by 1951, when trick-or-treating was depicted in the Peanuts comic strip.
During some Celtic celebrations of Samhain, villagers disguised themselves in costumes made of animal skins to confuse and drive away phantom visitors, and to avoid being possessed. By wearing masks or blackening their faces, Celts are also thought to have been impersonating dead ancestors, and young men dressed as women and vice versa. By the 1930s, costumes based on pop culture figures became popular.
This tri-colored treat was invented in the 1880s and designed to look like chicken feed during a time when half of Americans worked on farms; before World War I, corn wasn’t really considered people food. The Goelitz Candy Company – now Jelly Belly Candy Company – popularized the candy. As Halloween became more about candy in the 1950s, candy corn, due to increased advertising in October, slowly became the Halloween candy. More than 35 million pounds of the stuff is sold each year.
In the late 1800s, there was a push in America to make Halloween a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties focused on games, food and festive costumes for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular but community-heavy holiday centered around parades and town-wide parties. The baby boom of the ‘50s forced parties away from town centers and into the classroom or home where they could be more easily accommodated.
Across the American countryside in the latter 1800s, common Halloween tricks included placing farmers’ wagons and livestock on barn roofs, uprooting vegetables in backyard gardens and tipping over outhouses – whether they were occupied or not. By the 1920s, pranks had become the Halloween activity of choice for rowdy young people, sometimes amounting to more than $100,000 in damages each year in major cities. The Great Depression exacerbated the problem with Halloween mischief often devolving into vandalism, physical assaults and sporadic acts of violence. This is what’s thought to have helped adopt the organized, community-based trick-or-treating tradition in the 1930s – placed on hold, though, with the outbreak of World War II and the sugar rations that followed.
The name comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. After a deal with the devil gone wrong, Stingy Jack was barred entry into heaven and hell and forced off into the night, a burning piece of coal as his only light. Legend had it, he stuck the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish referred to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then simply “Jack O’Lantern.” When Irish immigrants brought the legend of Stingy Jack and the tradition of using turnips and potatoes as canvas to America, home of the pumpkin, jack-o’-lanterns became an integral part of Halloween celebrations.