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History of American Halloween

Updated on September 28, 2010

The word Halloween comes from the term “All Hallows Eve.” This described the evening before the Catholic holiday “All Hallows Day” (or All Saint’s Day), on which Catholics honor saints. However, harvest celebrations in the fall date back to the Celts who celebrated the closing of harvest and beginning of winter in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The Celts also celebrated the darkest day of the year during this time. When the Romans conquered this territory, they incorporated some of these celebration elements into a festival that they called Feralia, which celebrated the passing of the dead.

These festival elements all played a role in creating American Halloween, which is a combination of these customs of European immigrants and those of American Indians, which included annual fall festivals. The first American Halloween celebrations were called “play parties.” These consisted mostly of celebrating the end of the harvest, sharing ghost stories and stories of the dead, fortune telling, and singing and dancing.

In the mid- to late-1800s, America became home to millions of Irish immigrants, who brought with them the traditions of dressing in costumes and going visiting from house to house. This became the costumed trick or treating common today. Also, the use of Jack-O-Lanterns has Irish roots. A popular story, “Jack the Irish Villain,” features a man who is rejected by good and evil alike and who wanders the world seeking rest. The only warmth he receives is from a candle in a rotten potato. This story led to the Irish tradition of carving faces in potatoes and turnips and lighting them for the fall festivals. This translated into pumpkin carving in America.

Not until the 20th century did America experience widespread celebrations of Halloween. Near the turn of the century, Hallmark began mass-producing Halloween cards and in the 1930s costumes began to be sold in shops across the country. By the 1950s, trick or treating was established as a Halloween tradition.

Many Halloween traditions have ancient roots. Bobbing for apples is a common and popular Halloween custom. The Roman goddess of the harvest, Pomona, was known by her symbol of an apple, and this likely led to the custom of bobbing for apples. Many European traditions involved wearing masks to scare off evil spirits or ghosts. This was an especially common practice in times of drought, famine, or other trouble. People believed that the demons that had brought disaster upon them would be scared away by frightening masks.

Image Credit: striatic, Flickr


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