The history behind Halloween

  | James Innes

Now one of the world’s most popular holidays after Christmas, Halloween can trace its origins back to pagan times, and the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (meaning “Summer’s End”) when people would light bonfires, and wear costumes with blackened faces to ward off roaming ghosts. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III had designated November 1st as a time to honour all saints and martyrs, the holiday, All Saint’s Day, incorporating some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Halloween’s Eve; later just Halloween.

Trick or treating appears to originate from the 11th century tradition of souling, when children dressed as angels, demons or saints, would go door-to-door asking for soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the souls of dead relatives and friends. By the 19th century, souling gave way too guising or mumming when, in exchange for fruit or money, children would offer songs, poetry and jokes instead of prayer.

In the New World, the rigid Protestant belief systems practised in colonial New England meant that the celebration of Halloween was very limited. It was in Maryland, and the southern colonies where it was more popular, and, in time, the beliefs and customs of Native American Indians and the various European ethnic groups merged to create a very distinctly American version of Halloween.

As America was flooded with new immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century, the celebration of Halloween became a national event. Picking up on the traditions of souling and guising, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house-to-house, asking for food or money – although the expression “trick or treating” was not used before 1927.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Halloween had lost much of its superstitious and religious overtones, instead evolving into a holiday focused more on community and neighbourly get-togethers, than on ghosts and witchcraft.

Moving forwards to the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, community-centred holiday with parades and town-wide parades, although surprisingly marred by vandalism on a wide scale. After a brief hiatus during World War 2 when sugar rationing was in effect, Halloween continued to grow in popularity as a holiday, evolving into a holiday focused mainly on the young.

Today, Halloween is big business. Americans will spend an average US $6.9 billion on Halloween this year, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday. And it is not just in the US. Having originally been responsible for the export of the Halloween holiday to the US, the UK has re-imported it back in the past 20 years. This year, Brits are expected to spend £283 million on Halloween products, whilst the streets will be thronged with children “trick or treating”. It is not universally popular, however, as a YouGov poll found that 45% of people in the UK regarded Halloween as an “unwelcome American cultural import” (it is not clear if the other 55% were too busy celebrating Halloween to answer the survey!).

However, like it or not Halloween looks like it is here to stay, although few people celebrating this weekend will have any idea as to its history and origins.


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