The Origins of Halloween, a modern American holiday

Fall is here and my Instagram feed is full of people celebrating it and counting the days until Halloween. It tells you a little about the kind of content I seek on this platform, but the truth is I mostly use it for cats. Anyhow, this led me to realize that I don’t really know anything about that night of horror, except that the kids in America like to hunt for candy and it’s a good time to watch scary movies. I needed to dig a little and here is what I found.

What Is The History of Halloween?

First, here is what Merriam-Webster has to say about Halloween: October 31 was observed especially with dressing up in disguise, trick-or-treating, and displaying jack-o’-lanterns during the evening. Also, in the meaning defined above, the first known use of Halloween was around circa 1700.

I also learned that Halloween was short for All Hallow Even (All Saints’ Eve). It’s a start.

All Saints’ Day is a religious day. A Christian one. It is celebrated on November 1 in the Western churches. For a long time, it was on May 13 (it was established in the 7th century CE by Pope Boniface IV), but like other Christian celebrations (like Christmas), it was moved to another day in order to erase a pagan holiday.

When did we go from May 13 to November 1? It’s not totally official, but here is what Encyclopedia Britannica has to say about that:

The first evidence for the November 1 date of celebration and of the broadening of the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs occurred during the reign of Pope Gregory III (731–741), who dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s, Rome, on November 1 in honour of all saints. In 800 All Saints’ Day was kept by Alcuin on November 1, and it also appeared in a 9th-century English calendar on that day. In 837 Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance. In medieval England the festival was known as All Hallows, and its eve is still known as Halloween. The period from October 31 to November 2 (All Souls’ Day) is sometimes known as Allhallowtide.

But what was that pagan celebration the Christians wanted to disappear? The ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain.

The Celts used to believe that the dead returned to earth on Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced, “SAH-win”), a fire festival that was taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. On that night, people used to pay homage to the dead by lighting bonfires and offering sacrifices. Apparently, it was mandatory for every villager and it lasted three days and three nights.

The Victorian Halloween

It is nice to see a connection to such an ancient tradition, but Halloween really became a thing during the Victorian Era. At that time, England being a Protestant nation, All Saints Day was not really a thing anymore. Nevertheless, the Church of England kept alive the Halloween bonfire tradition.

Apparently, the Queen used to lead a small procession with torchbearers. The event was mythologized with fairies, elves, burning witches, and a bit of music. This was not really Halloween, mostly because the holiday is an American one derived from traditions imported to the USA by Irish immigrants following the Great Famine of the 1840s’.

Walt Disney presents “Trick or Treat” (a 1952 short).

The Irish diaspora came with the old Christian All Saints and All Souls day, and the old traditions of mumming and guising. The idea was that the poorer members of society used to rove the streets, singing and offering prayers on behalf of the wealthier members in exchange for “soul cakes.”

It is easy to see how this evolved into a contemporary Halloween celebration with the melting pot in America. Multiple traditions evolved from those Irish roots with some harvest festivals added to the mix and more. During the Great Depression, Trick-or-Treating became a thing.

To know more about this, I recommend reading this article: The Victorian Invention of Halloween.

If you’re into the history of Halloween, you may be interested in the history of the first Haunted House or of the first witches. It has nothing to do with Halloween, but if you want to know the origin of another American holiday, I also wrote about the origins of Juneteenth.

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