Halloween: A Brief History of Haunts

Nathan Aldrich

Halloween began as the Celtic tradition known as Samhain, the Feast of the Dead, or the Feast of Samhain, who may or may not, depending on the source, have been the god of the dead back about 4000 years ago, but who remains a favorite of modern witches and neo-pagans. The Celts lived in what is now northern France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The first of November marked the end of the Celts’ harvest season and the beginning of the new year, which also meant enduring the long, cold, dark winter; a time of year known as “the light that loses, the night that wins,” and associated with death.

Some people say the holiday began with the Romans’ celebration of two holidays, Feralia and Pomona. Feralia was a day in late October when the Romans honored their dead; the celebration of Pomona, who was the goddess of orchards and the harvest, also took place in late October. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and the holiday is the likely source for the tradition of bobbing for apples. The two Roman holidays then mixed with the Celts’ new year celebrations, around the time of 40 A.D., to get the celebration of Samhain.

At the end of the harvest season, as the Celts began to bring in their cattle from the pastures for the winter, the souls of the dead were thought to be on the move. Some say, those who were all packed up for the winter felt it only natural to offer something to their wandering ancestors. Druidic priests were thought to be able to communicate with the dead and gather information regarding future events. The Celts depended on this information, since their survival was chained to the volatile weather patterns of the natural world. They interacted heavily with their environment; Druids held all celebrations and ceremonies of worship outside. The Celts did not have physical structures for worship such as temples or churches, beyond the infamous rock configurations like Stonehenge.

Halloween was not a night of fun, but rather a night of terror. The Celts believed that the devil was among them and witches could be seen flying on brooms or galloping down roads on black cats that they had turned into horses. Some say this is the significance of the scary faced jack-o-lantern, to scare these evil spirits away. However, some say the scary face is a modern development and the original purpose of the jack-o-lantern was to guide the spirits to food, which was left out for them. The “jack”, in jack-O-Lantern, was originally a night watchman who carried a light. However, a “jack” became known as a spirit that floated through the air like a ball of light and tried to lure travelers off the road and to their doom; or so they say.

To commemorate this celebration, Druids built huge bonfires on every hilltop. It was thought that the bonfires would help restore the powers of the waning sun. Household’s fires were put out and then relit from sacred alter fires. Torches were paraded through the streets, and the people even burned their crops, animals, and sometimes each other in sacrifice to the Celtic deities. Homecoming bonfires may be a vestige of the old Celtic tradition.

In the seventh century Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as “All Saints Day” (or in England All-Hollows or All-Hallowmas Day). He did this for two reasons: one, he needed an “All Saints Day” as the year before the Saints had filled up all the days of the year. Secondly, the Pope realized that pagan traditions were just too deeply seeded in Celtic society to overcome, so he decided it would be best to Christianize the holiday.

Halloween in a form closer to the one we know and love was then born. Peasants would go through town begging for food, which on Halloween came in the form of “soul cakes,” in exchange for prayers for dead relatives. The church encouraged giving the “soul cakes” to the poor as a substitute for families leaving food out for wandering spirits. The ritual was eventually taken up by children in something more closely related to our “trick or treating,” except it was referred to as “going a-souling,” and kids got more useful things like food, money, and ale.

The significance of dressing up in costumes dates back to the Celtic belief that Halloween was the time when spirits walked the earth. As is the opinion of most today, coming across one of these spirits along its journey, even if it’s an old relative (or especially if it’s an old relative) was an experience widely considered less than desirable. So the Celts felt that in order to avoid being recognized by these spirits, they would wear masks, if they went out at night, so that they would be mistaken for just another spirit. Later, in England people known as “mummers” and “soul cakers” would dress in full Halloween regalia and perform plays for their neighbors.

As Europeans immigrated to the American colonies, they brought with them their varied Halloween customs. Because of the austere Protestant lifestyle during that time, Halloween celebrations were quite limited. Halloween was more common down in the South. It was combined with the many different European interpretations as well as with Native Americans’ autumnal celebrations, eventually evolving into a distinctly American holiday. By the middle of the nineteenth century, harvest season festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in America.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw many new immigrants pour into America, particularly from Ireland, where millions of people were fleeing the potato famine. These new immigrants helped to popularize Halloween on the national level. The form of Halloween we celebrate today is closely related to that of the Irish and English immigrants of the second half of the nineteenth century.

By the late eighteen hundreds there were wide-spread movements to make Halloween less about ghosts, goblins, and pranks and more about good, wholesome, neighborly fun. Costume parties were most common around the turn of the century. Newspapers and community leaders encouraged parents to remove the “horror” and “grotesque” from their Halloween celebrations. This helped to exorcise the superstitious and religious overtones of Halloween.

By the 1920s Halloween was largely a secular, downright good, wholesome, kinda fun holiday for everyone. However, over the next twenty years, Halloween in America was plagued by vandalism of increasing proportions; perhaps not so eerily coincidental, it was also a time when other masked marauders reached their apex of destruction, the Ku Klux Klan. In an attempt to placate the neighborhood vandals, the children, people began giving kids candy, a relatively inexpensive way to protect ones house and other personal belongings. “Trick or Treat” was thusly given life and meaning: give me a “treat” and I won’t play a “trick” on you.

By the time of the baby boom, the nation’s parents had too much to do just getting the kids ready, come Halloween time, to party it up themselves. So, Halloween became a kid-centric holiday. However, as the baby boomers grew up they never quite grew out of celebrating Halloween. Particularly with the rise in Halloween related consumer products, adults found that there was less and less reason to grow out of the holiday.

Today’s Americans spend about 6 billion dollars on Halloween, according to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine, making it second only to Christmas for biggest commercial holiday. Households spend on average between $80 and $100 on costumes, candy and decorations, according to surveys done by American Express.

People these days have their own reasons why they still let fear haunt their Halloween celebration; beyond vandalism, there is the fear of needles and razors in the candy received on Halloween. Everyone should know, this never happened; no one has ever been injured by a razor in their Halloween candy. What people should be aware of is that children are four times more likely to be hit by a car on Halloween than any other night of the year, according to Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Oct. 24, 1997.

Modern Physician magazine says that it’s wise to remind people of safety precautions. However, they also question Americans’ common sense in reference to a warning posted on a Batman costume: “Caution: Cape does not enable user to fly.”