Halloween has a rich history

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Jack Knudson

Jack o’lanterns are commonly found on Americans’ door steps but do any of those families know the real history of this tradition?

As the month of October marches its way toward its often-celebrated thirty-first day, many people are preparing their homes for the festivities. Many of said people, however, do not know the extensive history of Halloween.

Though many people will point to early, puritan North America as the birthplace of Halloween as a celebration, in reality, the holiday’s roots can be traced back nearly 2,000 years to Celtic regions, in the form of a celebration known as “Samhain.” This festival was generally an honoring of deceased spirits and the recently passed, with large bonfires being lit in their honor regularly. In its original form, Samhain involved the counting of stocks in the community, and perhaps even animal sacrifices. 

On top of this, the festival served the secondary purpose of pastoral communities preparing themselves for the oncoming winter.  The interesting aspect of this holiday is just how little is concretely known about it, as much of what is known about the specific details are found in Roman texts, who the Celts were actively at war with much of the time. This conflict creates a bias in many of the sources used to acquire information. 

Over time, after the Celts were conquered by the Romans and much beyond, Samhain was changed quite drastically. Notably, by 1,000 AD, All Souls Day had largely replaced it as a holiday for the purpose of honoring the dead and deceased. This theme of honoring the dead would remain consistent for a number of centuries.

The dominance of the Catholic church throughout much of Europe, namely England, and, to a lesser degree, Ireland, All Souls Day remained a constant for many centuries, with the dead being honored on November 2 every year. Once the Holiday reached colonial America in the 17th and 18th centuries, the traditions we know today began to flourish.

Jack Knudson

Trick-or-Treating is, for most, the main attraction of Halloween night. This tradition originally stemmed from the practice of dressing in costumes and going door to door requesting things such as food, clothes, and money. Another tradition associated with the early, American forms of Halloween was taken up largely by women, who believed that they could glean the knowledge of their future husband’s identity by performing tricks with yarn.

 

The true beginning of the more “fun” aspects of Halloween really began to appear nationally during the large scale immigration of the Irish during the 19th century. In the process of moving to North America to escape the Great Potato Famine, the Irish brought with them some of the most iconic superstitions and traditions known so widely today.

Jack Knudson

For example, the Jack O’Lanterns were an Irish tradition, as were bonfires and, of all things, blind dates, though not quite in the form one may assume, as they were more or less a rebranding of the older tradition of marriage divination. The most famous of Halloween traditions generally came from Ireland, though one in particular did reach its current form by American design.

 

Trick-Or-Treating, as we know it now, came into its current state, in some respects, around the 1920s. Originally, pranks were the activity of choice on Halloween night for rowdy young people, but when the great depression set in, these usually harmless acts of fun turned into vandalism and violence.

“Trick Or Treat” by KOMUnews is licensed under CC BY 2.0

To remedy this, community-based, organized Trick-Or-Treating was put into place by a number of places to reduce the damages. This practice, fortunately or unfortunately depending on perspective, came to an abrupt end for a time at the dawn of World War 2 and the sugar rationing that came with it. 

 

Once the times of war had passed, the tradition started itself up again, and now, on average, roughly $2.6 billion are spent on Halloween candy and decorations by Americans alone. A lengthy history indeed, but one that has a lot to offer.